Bruce Rosenthal, chair of business programs at Chatham University, was working for a division of Dow Jones in Japan in 1990 when he met with a bank client.
Fluent in Japanese, Mr. Rosenthal was comfortable chatting over tea with the executive whose Tokyo institution had been using the Dow Jones product for six months. But when he expressed his thanks to the client for doing business, the banker abruptly replied that the product "was crap and to get it out of here," Mr. Rosenthal recalled.
Caught off guard in what he expected to be a cordial meeting, what flashed through Mr. Rosenthal's mind was that nothing he learned from his master's in international business at Rutgers University had prepared him for the moment.
He carried that memory around for decades through a career that included working in Asia, Europe and the United States, and teaching business courses. So when he arrived at Chatham last year, he resolved the business curriculum would better equip students to handle real-world situations beyond statistics and spreadsheets.
"We can't prepare them for every situation, but we can give them an idea of what's out there."
Just as he did in his previous job as MBA program director at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, Mr. Rosenthal convened business focus groups, had lunch with corporate executives and brainstormed with entrepreneurs in an effort to determine what skills they expect from MBA graduates.
Then Chatham revamped its course offerings to make sure the students get those skills.
"The answers are almost always exactly the same," said Mr. Rosenthal. "They want somebody who can look at things creatively. They don't want somebody to sit in a cubicle and wait for a spreadsheet or a case study."
As the recession lingers, unemployment remains high and companies look for ways to compete and keep costs low, many business schools are taking a closer look to determine whether their programs meet the demands of recruiters and students.
Chatham, which anticipates having 77 students in its MBA program this fall, overhauled its curriculum to include more emphasis on skills such as negotiation, persuasion, innovative thinking and entrepreneurship.
Many schools are also beefing up online classes and offering flexible scheduling to make their programs appeal to as wide and diverse an audience as possible.
Applications for MBA programs nationally have risen every year since 2005 including a 3.5 percent jump for the 2009-10 academic year, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in Tampa, Fla., which tracks applications, enrollments and programs.
That's no surprise to business school administrators who typically see an increase in students when the economy flounders. People out of work figure a new degree can give them an edge in the job hunt; or people still employed think a degree might help them hold on to existing jobs or to advance in their organizations.
"Generally ... the wisdom is that during a recession, MBA enrollments go up," said Mr. Rosenthal. "People take time to retool themselves."
But because it's also a tight job market, students and prospective employers want MBAs to set prospective hires apart from the rest of the job-seeking pack.
At the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business, a task force was convened last year to assess the curriculum and gather feedback from recruiters, alumni, students and faculty about whether the school is covering the right issues, said John Delaney, the business school dean.
"What came back was not earth-shattering," he said. "Business schools have traditionally been very strong at giving students analytic skills.
"The question raised was whether students are getting the right applications skills so they can communicate with other people, make good decisions and are able to negotiate or resolve conflicts. Some places call them softer skills. I call them a different set of skills people need to be successful."
Besides implementing changes based on its task force findings -- probably by fall 2011, Dr. Delaney said -- Pitt expects to add more technology and services such as coaching and career support to assist MBA graduates in the job hunt.
Pitt also hopes to boost the number of students completing international internships in cities where it already offers classes and executive study programs -- Sao Paulo, Brazil; Prague; and Beijing. It will roll out its first completely online offering with a version of its MBA Essentials -- a non-credit series of classes for people who want management skills without earning a master's degree.
Enrollment in Pitt's full-time MBA program is expected to range from 110 and 120 students for 2010-11, down slightly from last year's 150 students.
While applications held steady, Dr. Delaney said the school accepted fewer MBA candidates because a surge of undergraduate business students forced it to allocate more faculty and space to manage undergraduate demand.
One area that has taken a hit because of the economy, he said, is Pitt's executive MBA program -- an intensive program for full-time working professionals that saw enrollment begin to drop two years ago. Enrollment fell from about 45 in 2008 to 25 last year and remained at 25 this year.
"Employers shut off support. The economy was too weak and [paying for education] is one of the last things employers will roll out again [when the economy picks up]," he said.
Like Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business is undergoing a curriculum review scheduled before the economy soured, said Laurie Weingart, professor of organizational behavior and theory and chair of the curriculum review committee.
"We do periodic reviews ... and in terms of adjusting our curriculum post-recession, it's how we respond to any change in the business environment: how basic models can apply in a new economy, and some new courses are developed to address different aspects."
Tepper, which had 413 full-time MBA candidates and 326 part-time students last year, has no plans to shift its emphasis from its niche as "an analytical business school," she said. "The idea is to do what we're doing better: to stay flexible, stay current and stay on top."
Penn State University's Smeal College of Business last year added credits for ethics courses in its MBA program and is close to launching a new department focused on risk management, said James Thomas, dean of the school that has 200 MBA students and another 100 working toward doctorate degrees in business.
"We've been working on adding these things for two years. It's not a gut-wrenching reaction to the shift in the economic health of the country. We just saw it as something we needed to be involved in."
Online courses have been part of its business school offerings for a decade, he said, and Penn State has a specialized online MBA for supply chain management.
At Duquesne University's Donahue Graduate School of Business, an uptick in fall enrollment to an expected 374 including part-time evening students is driven by growth in its MBA degree in sustainability, said Thomas Nist, director of graduate business programs.
"We live in a world with a lot of attention to the environment, responsibility, corporate governance and transparency. It's important to us to expose students to those topics in a manner consistent with what management would take on."
Thirty-four students are scheduled to graduate tomorrow from Duquesne with MBAs in sustainability, up from 13 in the first round three years ago.
To provide more real-world experiences, Mr. Nist said the school collaborates with local businesses in tours, roundtable discussions, business projects and "idea cafes" where students get to interact with managers.
"We try to make our program as grounded in the market as we can."
At local schools that offer MBA programs targeted primarily for working professionals, the emphasis is on providing flexibility for people already pursuing careers.
"Our students say the master's will set them apart so they can hold onto their jobs," said Angela Isaac, dean of the school of business at Point Park University.
The school, with 327 MBA candidates, offers specialized tracks in health systems management and in sports, arts and entertainment management. It taps experts from the community, like concert promoters, to help teach about real-world situations, said Arch Maharaja, who teaches business management.
"We want them to know when Paul McCartney does a concert, the concert manager doesn't get to see the show: he's behind the scene counting the money and making sure everyone gets paid."
At Carlow University, which has offered an MBA for three years and has about 100 students, there is more demand since the economic meltdown for a general program rather than concentrations in innovation or information technology, said Cindy Rothenberger, dean of the graduate school.
"I think people are afraid to narrow themselves in specific areas and then not be qualified for a job that comes up."
When Robert Morris University makes changes in its MBA curriculum, they will be based on "what we hear from industry people," said John Clark, professor of sport management and director of the MBA program that has between 200 and 230 students.
"If you look at students who use the MBA as a springboard up in their own company or a different company, that for all intents and purposes is what a master's degree can and most likely should do."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.