Monday, September 21, 2009

Campus On A Hill

Although progress has been slow on the GMAT front, I have been busy with other things. Not the least of which is that last week, I went on my first school visit! I spent Monday in Ithaca, New York at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, sitting in on classes, attending an info session and taking a tour.

I am still very early in the admissions process, so for me this visit was more about confirming that business school in general is the right direction for me to be taking, rather than confirming that the Johnson School in particular is the right choice for me. Because I know so few people that have gone through the MBA process, it was hugely helpful for me to actually see what the process is like, in person. I was already in the upstate New York area for a small music festival, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit, considering it's an area that I rarely (if ever) manage to visit.

I drove up to Ithaca late on Sunday night, leaving the music festival after the last band I wanted to see. By the time I exited the highway in the town of Whitney Point and made my way along the hilly two-lane back road towards Ithaca, dense fog had already descended upon the area, making for some slow-going. About an hour, two or three small towns, and many farm houses later, I arrived in Ithaca where I quickly checked into my motel and passed out on the bed, remnants of concert glitter and confetti still lodged in my hair.

The next morning, after a good scrubbing to make myself presentable, I made my way up the hill to Cornell for a full day of business school voyeurism. The school's friendly admissions representative Michael had informed me that classes are held at 8:30 and 10:00am, followed by an information session and tour at 11:40am. During the day of my particular visit, I had the choice of sitting in on three core courses with first-year students: Microeconomics for Management, Marketing Management, and Financial Accounting. These are the courses that all first year students take during the first half of their fall semester (unless they place out the requirement, as for example all CPAs do with Financial Accounting). During the second half of the fall semester, all first-years complete Statistics for Management, Managerial Finance, and Strategy. Both courses I opted to sit-in on, Microeconomics and Marketing, were lecture-based classes.

In Microeconomics, I was a little bit star-struck by Professor Robert Frank, a New York Times columnist and co-author of Principles of Economics (with none other than Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke). I'm guessing that Frank was at one point a radical or at least left-leaning hippie, judging from his numerous environmental issue-driven examples of economic concepts, from the problems with subsidies to small family farms (complete with a non sequitor about fertilizers poisoning the land) to airfoils atop cross-country commercial trucks and their relationship to changes in the cost of gas. However, it may also be that Frank simply knows his audience, and is playing to the fact that The Johnson School attracts many students who share this interest in environmental issues with its Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. The Johnson School will also be hosting the 2009 Net Impact Conference, further playing to this strength.

I was grateful for the 20-minute break between classes, during which time what seemed like the entire school congregated in the central atrium for a hectic (but still courteous) cattle call of free coffee, tea and hot chocolate, sponsored by the Dean's Office. Macho men these Johnson students are not: hot chocolate with copious amounts of whipped cream seemed to be winning out over coffee two-to-one. I would imagine that as the seasons get darker and colder, and the work-load gets heavier, this coffee break would become even more appreciated.

Marketing had less star-power with Visiting Professor Manoj Agarwal, who focused on issues of product line growth and brand extension drawing examples of consumer goods from shampoo to Starbucks. Although Agarwal's lecture was informative, some students seemed less than interested and I noticed several students in the back rows checking things on their Blackberrys or completing unrelated Accounting homework instead of paying attention to the lecture. The lecture halls of The Johnson School are all located in the basement of Sage Hall, which means no sunlight, no view of the outside world, and theoretically no distractions; although these MBA students have seemed to successfully find a way around that last bit.

Marketing was followed by an informal information session-tour-lunch with two bubbly first-year students. Both were female, probably no coincidence considering the current Director of Admission's goal to increase gender diversity. "Next year he wants the incoming class to be 50% female!" extolled one of the student guides enthusiastically. Our group of seven prospective students, including myself, and one prospective spouse were lead to Sage Hall's cafeteria, where we were treated to salads and sandwiches courtesy of the Office of Admissions. One prospective student, a sharply-dressed hotel owner from Mexico, looked down at his oversized edible tortilla bowl filled with chicken ceasar salad in a combination of shock and embarrassment as it made its way across the counter from cook to customer.

We made our way to a vacant classroom and while munching on our lunches, the two students went over a PowerPoint presentation of facts about The Johnson School. Prospective students interjected with questions as specific points of issues arose: How many Johnson students actually pair with students from other Cornell schools to develop new business ventures? Maybe one or two per year. Is it difficult to get into the classes you want? Only the popular ones. Does every student get his or her first choice of Immersion? Yes, unless he or she tries to change Immersion after the decisions are finalized. Does everybody have a Blackberry? No, iPhones are actually the only smartphones officially supported by the Cornell IT system. How has recruiting been this year considering the economic climate? Not as bad as they were expecting.

After the information session and lunch, our group was lead on a tour of the school. I thought that I had been wise to not book my visit in the dead of winter to avoid trudging through mud and snow, but in fact it turned out to be a moot point, as the entirely of The Johnson School is all contained within Sage Hall. Lecture halls, a small campus store (which stocks all textbooks), student lockers and locker rooms (with showers!), and a small kitchen/lounge area are in the basement. The first floor contains the library, a central atrium, smaller classrooms, the cafeteria and assorted offices. The second floor has more offices, library study spaces, and a computer lab that was almost entirely vacant. At the end of the tour, our student guides encouraged us all to apply for school's Park Leadership Fellows Program ("Why not!") and to utilize friends and colleagues to help look over and edit our application essays.

Our student guides lead us back to the Admissions Office, and we were given the option to attend the third and final core course of the day. However, I knew not to push it considering my late night the prior evening, so I instead headed for my rental car and the long 5-hour drive down into New York City.