Flagging enrollment led a committee composed of faculty, students and local business executives in 2005 to weigh options for the program — the most drastic being disbandment.
Enrollment had steadily declined throughout the decade before bottoming out in 2006 at 188 students-roughly half the number just five years earlier. School officials and committee members blamed Butler's lack of advertising, increased competition from other MBA programs, and the departure of the business school's dean.
"When you looked at the numbers, you didn't need a master's degree in business to see this thing was going the wrong way," said Lynda Smirz, chief medical officer at Clarian North, who earned an MBA from Butler in 2001.
Yet, despite the challenges, committee members hatched a plan to return the program to prominence. A few years later, their recommendation to launch an extensive advertising campaign coupled with coursework rooted in integrated, experiential learning — seems to be paying off.
Dubbed "real life, real business," the new curriculum features hands-on opportunities at the beginning and end of the program to learn about local businesses and offer consulting services.
In between, students might develop a CEO survey, have finance executives co-teach their accounting classes, or help clients of the Butler Business Accelerator.
The result is a 63-percent increase in the number of admitted students from the 2006-2007 academic year. Total enrollment during the same period climbed as well, up 55 percent, to 291 students.
Program officials capped enrollment at 300 this fall, said Bill O'Donnell, Butler's director of graduate programs, partly because of a more selective admissions process.
"What we are focusing on now is the quality of the learning experience," he said.
Bringing a fresh approach
O'Donnell, who arrived at Butler in June 2006, is himself a result of the changes undertaken. The director's position in the past typically had been occupied by a faculty member who oversaw admissions and advisement. Those duties now fall on a group of professors to give O'Donnell time to build relationships with the corporate community.
His background in the business world, not academia, is what attracted Butler officials to O'Donnell. He spent 30 years in consulting and human resources management, leading the local office of New York-based Mercer, a national benefits consulting firm, for several years.
In a case of bad timing, O'Donnell joined the former ATA Airlines Inc. as its head of human resources on Sept. 10, 2001. He stayed until the company's decline into bankruptcy three years later.
While ATA's quagmire may have been too severe for Butler's students to tackle, they are getting exposure to real business issues. That's typical for many MBA programs. But Butler differentiates itself by including those types of activities in its core classes, O'Donnell said.
Most schools offer portfolio-management classes in which students manage a make-believe fund. In contrast, a Butler class oversees the portfolio of the university's $123 million endowment.
The program allows students to earn their degree at their own pace — typically in 2-1/2 to five years — and is attracting young professionals who already have been in the work force at least five years.
"I want someone who works at Roche to pipe up and say that didn't work," O'Donnell said, "or someone at Lilly who can tell me why it worked."
Learning on the job
New students are introduced to the MBA program by participating in what's known as the "Gateway Experience." In a two-day span, they learn about a local company's dilemma and offer solutions.
Butler has partnered with Steak n Shake Co., HHGregg and the sports-licensed division of Germany-based The Adidas Group, formerly Logo Athletic, on Post Road.
The division employs about 1,100 people, including 274 office personnel, at its east-side manufacturing plant. It manufactures and distributes apparel for the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the NCAA.
Every NFL player wears uniforms made by Reebok, which Adidas acquired in 2006. Company executives already are negotiating to renew the contract that expires in 2012 and recruited the advice of Butler students as well.
They briefed the students on the business in late August, before they visited the operations the following day. Twenty-five students divided into five groups presented their suggestions in a 15-minute presentation later that same day.
The winning team recommended Adidas focus on making a bigger push to market apparel for large high schools by selling it in retail outlets.
It's doubtful the company would explore that avenue, said Blake Lundberg, vice president and general manager of The Adidas Group. Still, he enjoyed hearing their ideas.
"They could have come up with something that we absolutely may never have thought of," he said of the students. "They didn't, but it's tough for a first-time MBA student who isn't in the industry."
Lundberg said the company might expand its relationship with Butler to participate next in what the MBA program calls its "Capstone Experience."
The semester-long project is the final step before graduation and enables students to take what they learned in the classroom and put it to use consulting for companies. Roche Diagnostics, Rolls Royce Corp. and not-for-profit Second Helpings Inc. are among those that have participated.
Jason Richarz, a national account manager at Thomson, completed the Capstone project last summer by examining compensation and productivity issues at locally based CMW Inc., a maker of metallurgical products.
"The hands-on experience was great," he said. "It wasn't a black-or-white case where there were easy answers."
Butler has held tuition for its MBA program the last four years at about $20,000. O'Donnell expects the cost will rise, though.