Strategies for developing core courses in specialty programs

By Matt Drake

As many universities seek to increase their graduate student enrollment, it seems that a large number of business schools have launched specialized master’s degree programs in the past decade or so. Unlike more general degrees such as the MBA, these specialized programs are often short (30 credits or so) and are focused on various functional areas such as finance, accounting or supply chain management or on current business themes such as sustainability or entrepreneurship. Often the schools will not invest in hiring a new set of specialty faculty members; as a result, the current faculty members are left to develop the curriculum regardless of their level of familiarity or unfamiliarity with the specialty material. I faced this situation as a newly minted Ph.D. in my first year at my current institution, and I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences and recommendations with other academics that find themselves in the same position.

During my first year at Duquesne University we initiated plans to launch a new daytime MBA cohort-based program focusing on sustainable management. The starting point for the new curriculum was our existing part-time, evening MBA program, which had one required, three-credit course in Operations Management and one required, two-credit course called Managing the Value Chain. To create space for the new sustainability material, the curriculum committee determined that these two courses covering five credits would merge into one, two-credit course in the new program. The rationale in reducing the coverage of this and other core material is that coverage would also occur through integrated consulting projects and case studies, a hallmark of the new program. After seven years of teaching in this program, I feel comfortable in saying that the students have been able to learn the additional material through these outside projects because many of the graduates have begun successful careers in various types of positions within the supply chain.

As the new faculty member fresh out of school and aware of all of the innovative research on every possible subject (as it seems some people thought I was), I was charged with the task of developing the new course. The truth was that I knew a little bit about sustainable supply chain management (especially closed-loop supply chain management), but I’d never done any actual research nor had I done any extensive study in the area. I also felt a significant amount of pressure because I was a new faculty member and I knew that offering this new program was a high-profile strategy for my school.

I started thinking about the structure of the course by looking at some relevant textbooks. At the time there were no textbooks on the market designed for a sustainable operations management course like this. I had to think of the course in a different way. I started thinking about what I wanted the students to learn in the limited time that I had them in class. I knew that it would be impractical to focus on functional areas and tactical decisions such as production scheduling and facility layout. I decided to take a more fundamental view of operations management as process flow management because the strategies and tools that we would discuss in class would be applicable to any part of any organization in which the students would ultimately work.

At this point I also remembered that the student audience for this new program would be different from the working professionals who populated our traditional evening MBA program. These daytime students would have a diverse background from business to the humanities to the sciences. (Indeed, since the program launched in 2007 we have proudly had over a dozen alumni of the Peace Corps graduate from the program.) I could not assume that all of the students would have any significant background in operations management. This meant that I needed to start the course at a relatively elementary level so that the novice students could keep up. I also knew that all of the students who completed this program would not necessarily pursue careers in sustainable management; some of them would begin more traditional business careers. The challenge was in designing a course that would not bore the students who had undergraduate business degrees and would not be too advanced for the students coming from other fields of study.

The course that I ultimately delivered in the fall 2007 semester for the first time (and every fall semester since) looked a lot like a traditional MBA-level operations management course on the surface. I made sure to cover the basics of process flow management (focusing on Little’s Law), but I tried to use examples and case studies related to sustainable business practices wherever appropriate and discussed the long-term implications of many of the strategies and techniques that I presented. This approach has succeeded in helping students of all backgrounds to learn something valuable from the course.

My main recommendation for other academics who are asked to develop courses in specialty programs is to focus on the audience. If the program is meant for people who have a background in a given area (such as accounting), the curriculum can start at a more advanced level. If the students will have diverse backgrounds, however, it is likely appropriate to offer a traditional-looking course with cases, examples and readings tailored toward the specialty area. In the latter case, the challenge can turn out to be nowhere nearly as complicated and time-consuming as it may originally seem.

Matt Drake ( is an associate professor of Supply Chain Management at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.