Ross’s interim dean on what’s next for the top-ranked business school

BY Meghan MalasJune 14, 2022, 1:50 PM

The University Of Michigan North Campus signage, as seen in Ann Arbor, Michigan in July 2019. (Photo By Raymond Boyd / Getty Images)

When Francine Lafontaine became the interim dean of the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business in May 2021, she quickly learned that a balancing act was inherent in this role. Lafontaine needed to ensure that the top-ranked business school continued to compete in the business education market, but she also needed to innovate in a way that left room for the next dean to create a vision for the school.

“What we did this last year was focus on who we are, what our mission has been, and the way we’ve approached it so far,” Lafontaine tells Fortune. “There are two important aspects — which are that we want people to be addressing real-world problems and we also want a culture that’s inclusive and engaged because we want students to tackle important problems and ultimately make a positive difference in the world.”

In May, the University of Michigan announced Sharon Matusik as the new dean of the Ross School of Business. Matusik will begin her term in August after an 18-year stint at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she served as dean for the past five years.

“When I reflect on the transformational ideas in my field, the most influential mentors, and my teaching role models, they have a Ross connection,” Matusik said in a press release. “What unites them all is a deep commitment to making an important impact.”

Lafontaine’s run as an interim dean was preceded by her career as a member of the Ross faculty since 1991. She plans to continue this role, after taking a sabbatical, when Matusik becomes dean. Matusik was not available for comment on her vision for the top-ranked business school as she’s not participating in media interviews until she officially becomes dean on Aug. 1.

Ahead of that transition, Fortune spoke with interim dean Lafontaine to learn more about Ross’s plans for the future.

Ross is focused on ‘action-based learning’ and tech

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Ross School’s action-based learning approach to MBA programs. That milestone offered an opportunity for Ross leadership to reflect on both the current efficacy and future potential of the school’s signature MBA program attribute.

In the Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) course, full-time MBA students work for a half-semester in a team with faculty support on a real-world problem proposed by a company. The projects evolve as businesses evolve, and include a lot of interaction with partnering organizations. In 2022, many of the MAP projects were done in partnership with companies in the tech sector, which is increasingly a focus for the school.

In fact, in the past year, Ross launched the “Business + Tech” initiative, designed to help students deepen their understanding about the tech industry.

“One of the things we found is that companies often say that business school students don’t understand the language of some of the tech activities, Lafontaine says. “Our Business + Tech initiative this year did something that they called the Business + Tech literacy download, where the students were able to participate in 25 different types of sessions on topics like storytelling with data, data analytics, and programming languages.

Ross is investing in analytics offerings

While Lafontaine has been at the helm, Ross expanded its reach by launching two new concentrations for the MBA program — one in data and business analytics — and an MBA concentration in management science.

“It’s one of the ways that we allow students to take a few courses so that they can signify that they’ve spent more time and energy on analytics than the typical MBA student would have,” Lafontaine explains. “It’s an important component of how the world is evolving right now.”

Both of these new concentrations within the Ross MBA program are designed around new courses that the school has developed in the past few years. These courses include a fintech course that covers equity analytics, which helps students think about how to use data to analyze diversity and equity issues in businesses.

Ross also added a master’s degree program in business analytics to its roster, which will launch in Fall 2022. The school received thousands of applications for the program’s inaugural cohort.

“We had an incredible number of applicants for this business analytics program,” Lafontaine says. “We have our first class that’s starting very soon that’s going to have about 60 students in it — we had a goal of 40 but we have so many applicants that we decided to make it just a little bit bigger.”

How online education fits into Ross’s future

Lafontaine became an interim dean in the spring of 2021, as online programs had already become more popular due to Covid-19-related restrictions and policies. But Ross’s online MBA degree program had already launched in 2019, before the pandemic-induced surge.

“We had developed the asynchronous modules for the courses and built a studio that allows faculty to teach remotely and synchronously in a way that is much more comfortable and interactive with students,” Lafontaine says. “By the time the pandemic hit, we had already started offering this program, so we already had a number of resources that we could rely on — including the experience that faculty have in dealing with synchronous and asynchronous materials.”

In the last year, most of Ross’s full-time and residential programs have ditched the hybrid delivery model of 2020 and 2021 and students have been in-person the whole time, with Covid-19 precautions and requirements in place.

“We’ve been able to take things online when we need to, and gradually move back to in-person, because we had this experience with the online design and teaching experience,” Lafontaine says.

Ross is now investing in another high-tech studio meant to support online learning materials, as those offerings expand.

“Given that experience, we’ve started to use a little bit of the hybrid model in some of our part-time programs, like the executive MBA program, the weekend MBA program, and in our executive education program,” Lafontaine says.

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