With its new school, WPI means business

Highly rated program receives a significant upgrade

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By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / November 13, 2010

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Joe Contini, 23, a second-year graduate business student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, noticed the difference as soon as he arrived in Worcester for classes this September. The management program he began a year ago had been upgraded over the summer to a full business school, with a larger entering class, a new dean, and ambition to double its size in the next three to five years.

“Symbolically, the fact that this is now a school of business pushes us to a new level of credibility,’’ Contini said. “By comparison, a management program sounds like a few classrooms in a building.’’

WPI has been teaching business courses for most of its nearly 150 years of existence, and last year, BusinessWeek ranked it number one in the nation among part-time business programs. But by launching a stand-alone business school, the university — best known for its technology and engineering programs — is signaling its commitment to offer students the skills they need to start and expand businesses.

“We saw the opportunity to produce entrepreneurial business leaders who are savvy about engineering and science,’’ said Dennis Berkey, WPI’s president.

Michelle Sparkman-Renz, director of research communications at the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council, owner of the GMAT entrance exams for business schools, said WPI is tapping into a receptive market.

“The demand for business schools by engineering and technology students is extremely strong,’’ she said.

Sparkman-Renz said that surveys of students who take the business school admission test show that engineering majors represent “18 percent of the business school talent pipeline. Engineering is the second most popular major after accounting.’’

Despite the down economy, Sparkman-Renz said, students are taking the GMAT business school entrance exam “at historic levels.’’ Nearly 264,000 exams were given in the 2010 testing year, which ended in June. That’s slightly less than last year, but 29 percent more than five years ago.

Berkey, who has been at WPI for seven years, said the new business school is part of a long-term vision to increase the university’s “prestige and potency.’’ The dean he recruited to run the business school, Mark Rice, arrived in July from Babson College, where he served for six years as dean of the Olin Graduate School of Business. Prior to joining Babson, Rice was part of the leadership team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Management and Technology.

WPI’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business were already accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, but the addition of the school did require some internal reorganization.

Yesterday, during a visit to the Globe, Rice said he was confident that the school’s “experiential focus,’’ which emphasizes real world problem solving, will offer valuable training for students looking for jobs or planning to create their own.

“In an economic recovery, the most dynamic activity ends up being done by entrepreneurs,’’ Rice said.

Berkey and Rice said WPI’s business school would not aspire to turn out financial industry wizards.

“If you’re interested in going to Wall Street and building fancy financial instruments, go to Cambridge,’’ Berkey said, paraphrasing a business executive he spoke to earlier this year. “If you want to start and grow businesses, go to WPI.’’

“The dominant group that graduates from WPI’s business school is going to be people who will either start new technological ventures, or work in an existing technological enterprise,’’ added Rice.

Today, a few months into its first year, WPI’s business school has 200 undergraduate students and 350 graduate students. Rice said he plans to double the number of the graduate students in the next three to five years.

The growth will not be obvious on the school’s main campus, situated in one of Worcester’s residential neighborhoods, which Berkey categorized as “almost at capacity.’’ There are no plans for a new business school building. Instead, Rice said he intends to build the school’s enrollment by offering “blended’’ programs, which combine online learning with regular, two-day, face-to-face sessions on the Worcester campus every six or seven weeks.

“Most people who are going to pursue an MBA are not going to quit work,’’ Rice said. “So I don’t think they will be able to drive to our campus twice a week for the next two years.’’

One student who will be taking advantage of the blended option is Contini, who just landed a job with a Cambridge consulting firm. Within a matter of weeks he’ll be shifting his studies to a combination of online courses with trips to Worcester every six or seven weeks.

“I’m looking forward to getting my MBA from a business school, not just a management department,’’ he said. “This change couldn’t have come at a better time for me.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at