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Prioritizing The Role Of Rigor Vs. Relevance


In this interview, Kenneth Dunn, professor of financial economics, discusses the relationship between academic priorities and MBA leadership in today’s marketplace. As the public debate over the emphasis upon rigor (academic preparation) versus relevance (career preparation) continues to attract attention, it is, in Dunn’s view, a false dichotomy that obscures fundamental truths about learning and performance for MBA students and future leaders.


  Q: How does the Tepper School view the debate over rigor and relevance in the MBA curriculum?

A: You have to view rigor and relevance along a continuum. They do not compete, and the tension perceived between them is misunderstood. Rigor (the academic focus of an institution) is necessary for understanding and operating within an environment of complexity and dynamic change. Relevance (the practice of management principles) is introduced following an understanding of the foundational disciplines and as a means of applying rigor.

In business education, there are basic quantitative techniques that must be learned. There are no short cuts. Understanding the basic fundamentals means you are better equipped to solve complex problems within a dynamic environment.

Q: What role does fundamental research play in a graduate business education?

A: Over the long-term, fundamental research impacts the practice of business. But not all schools can – or should – commit to a research focus. A school need never apologize for its research commitment as long as it advances ideas and generates new knowledge that impacts business practice.

The questions we must ask are which tools and what knowledge are necessary to equip our students to be successful immediately upon graduation, helping their organization solve critical problems. But the caliber of their preparation is what will make the difference in terms of our graduates’ long-term contributions.

It is important that business schools keep in contact with the real world, but the real world is not a substitute for the business fundamentals that must be learned before a student can begin contributing. In this respect, Tepper has an advantage because collaboration across disciplines and industries is part of the culture in the business school and at Carnegie Mellon University. For example, there has never been any formal department structure within the business school and therefore, our students have never been taught according to rigid silos. The rich problems and dynamic business situations are often in the space between the silos, and it requires an appreciation and understanding of interdisciplinary scholarship to derive knowledge from this space.

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
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