Solving for X

Seven business school deans share their most successful solutions to the 21st-century problems their institutions have faced.
Solving for X


While some focus on globalization and others know how to integrate technology into the curriculum, the one thing they all have in common is their ability to devise creative solutions to wicked problems. Here, seven deans each describe a single difficult challenge they’ve faced during their tenures. While each problem—and solution—is unique, all seven deans draw similar lessons from their experiences: Stay true to your strengths, collaborate freely, and engage faculty in the problem-solving process.


Steef van de Velde, Dean and Professor of Management and Technology, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, The Netherlands

Four years ago, we wanted to position RSM to stand out in the market, so our communications department developed an initiative called “I WILL,” which started out as a marketing campaign but evolved into a movement. In October 2009, we asked students, alumni, and faculty to write goal-setting statements, which we integrated into our communications. Statements ranged from “I WILL become a successful manager” to “I WILL create 1 million jobs for women in rural India.”

The concept expanded dramatically after Michaéla Schippers, associate professor in leadership and management, read the work of Dominique Morisano and colleagues, which shows how an online goal-setting intervention can improve students’ academic performance. At Schippers’ suggestion, we integrated goal-setting into our curriculum and linked it to our I WILL initiative.

In 2011, we began administering an online goal-setting exercise to all incoming undergraduates. First, we ask students about their long-term goals: What do they want to achieve? What futures do they want to avoid? Two days later, we ask them to prioritize their goals and create plans to achieve them. Finally, they write personal I WILL statements.

I WILL was controversial at fi rst, because faculty viewed the word “I” as egocentric. The cultural mindset in the Netherlands is collaborative, so faculty felt we should emphasize “We” instead. To earn their buy-in, we formed an “I WILL embassy” of about 15 students, faculty, staff, and alumni who acted as ambassadors for the concept. Once faculty saw how goal-setting and I WILL statements were related to better student performance, they began to support the idea.

Today, the communications department takes a professional black-and-white picture of each student with his or her I WILL statement—quite an undertaking, given the nearly 1,300 students in our first year bachelor’s program and more than 200 students in our post-experience MBA. We’ve taken more than 7,000 pictures so far, hanging poster-sized versions of the images in our corridors. At graduation, we show students’ I WILL statements on a screen as they cross the stage, closing the loop on the goals they set when they first came to campus.

We also established an I WILL award to recognize promising ideas—winners receive €15,000 (about US$20,000) to move their ideas forward. Two 2012 MBA graduates won most recently with their business plan for CroMiDo, a platform that allows users to make microdonations through their mobile phones to individuals in emerging markets. The plan was inspired by their statement “I WILL help people to help people.”

I WILL has benefi ted the school in ways we never expected. For instance, Dutch universities are legally required to adopt a broad admissions policy, which can result in high dropout rates. According to data gathered by Schippers, the retention rate for students who participate in our goal-setting and I WILL exercises has increased by 25.6 percent. In the last two years, we’ve seen the highest performing cohorts in the school’s history.

Through I WILL’s success, I’ve learned that sometimes we must step back and rely on the passions of the students, faculty, and staff. They can make an idea flourish.

For more about I WILL, visit or Van de Velde’s next priority is to reduce RSM’s dependency on state funding by developing new programs. He also wants to strengthen relationships with senior business executives, alumni, and corporate networks.


Peter Henry, Dean, New York University, Stern School of Business, New York City

During my first year as dean in 2010, I heard a recurring concern from MBA students, who said they felt intense pressure to focus on their job searches very early in the program. That pressure left them little time to reflect on how they could create value in the world.

I wanted to send them a different message, one based on “and” rather than “or.” I wanted them to understand that doing well and doing good need not be discrete activities: Our students can become investment bankers and do great things in the world. They can become entrepreneurs and serve emerging markets. I also wanted them to have time to explore how they can create value for themselves and their organizations and the world before the realities of recruiting took hold.

Our faculty agreed that giving them this time would be worthwhile. Together, we decided to “fl ip” the MBA experience—just as many people talk about “flipping” the classroom—by reimagining our MBA orientation. During the spring and summer of 2011, Adam Brandenburger, professor of economics and strategy and now our vice dean of innovation, led a group of faculty, students, and administrators to design LAUNCH, a nine-day intellectual and experiential summit for all 390 of our incoming, full-time MBAs.

Held for the first time in August 2011, LAUNCH tackles social issues from four perspectives: World, Business, City, and U. During its first three days—each devoted to one of the first three perspectives—students hear presentations and participate in breakout sessions. Past speakers have included Roger Ferguson, chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, who discussed the impact of globalization; and Cory Booker, now senator from New Jersey, who shared how he transformed challenges into economic opportunities as mayor of Newark.

Faculty also create content for LAUNCH. For instance, marketing professor Scott Galloway created “9,” an event where nine entrepreneurs, business leaders, and faculty give nine-minute TED-like talks. “9” features individuals like Elew, a New York musician who has established a brand for himself by playing the piano from the outside and the inside. Stories like Elew’s show students how seeing problems from different perspectives can lead to innovative solutions.

We devote the last six days of LAUNCH to the U theme, as we encourage students to think about their contributions to society. Students receive mentoring, hear from recent graduates, and learn about our student clubs and offices of career development and student engagement. They also dedicate time to Launch Pad, an activity in which they break into teams to produce and present videos, each highlighting a way to create value in the world. Students then vote on the projects they see as most promising. Launch Pad puts the mindset of the first three days into action.

We bill LAUNCH as “An Education in Possible,” which is the essence of our mission. For us, LAUNCH has become both noun and verb. As an event, it is the beginning of our MBA students’ experience at Stern; it is also an active process that propels students onto a trajectory to explore how they can become more transformative leaders.

To read the agenda of LAUNCH 2013, visit launch.stern. Henry’s next priority is to provide these opportunities to all qualified applicants, regardless of need. “In the United States,” he says, “those born in the top quartile of income distribution have an 87 percent chance of going to college, while those born in the bottom quartile have only an 8 percent chance.” By working on the school’s scholarship strategy, he aims to change those odds.


Lisa Toms, Dean, College of Business, Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia

When I became dean in fall 2007, the university president gave me my first big challenge: Start an MBA program. Our school is located in a rural city of only 11,000 people, in a region experiencing a population decline. Furthermore, we had no budget to hire additional faculty.

But there are few affordable MBA options in southern Arkansas, so we knew we could fill a niche. We conducted a market study, including an online survey of members of our local chambers of commerce. That survey made clear that a traditional, full-time MBA was not feasible, because demand would come largely from working professionals living across a large geographic area.

That’s why we designed a fl exible two-year, 30-hour MBA that includes eight core courses and two electives; it combines online and face-to-face delivery. At first, we offered two courses online and two at night on campus; the following year, we reversed delivery so that courses offered online the previous year were delivered traditionally and vice versa. Because online enrollment grew so quickly, we now offer four core courses online and two core night courses each semester. We offer an elective each semester, but alternate the delivery method. Students can take any course online or on campus, they can enter the program at any time, and they can opt for a 33-hour MBA with an area of emphasis. Currently, we offer an emphasis only in agribusiness, but we expect to receive approval for one in supply chain management in January.

We could not hire more faculty, so we increased the size of our undergraduate course sections from 20 to 30 students. Faculty who teach only in the undergraduate program assume a 12-hour course-load per semester, while those who teach in our MBA program have nine hours.

We spent a year obtaining approvals for the MBA from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). But when we launched in September 2008, HLC’s reviewers had approved our proposal but had not yet submitted it to a final vote. For that reason, we couldn’t yet market the program. So we promoted it through word of mouth, encouraging current undergraduates and recent alumni to apply. In our first year, with no advertising, we enrolled 12 students. In 2009, we enrolled 24; in 2010, 48. This year, 67 students are enrolled.

Recently, our on-campus international enrollments have declined due to problems with visas. For example, when I taught my MBA marketing class two years ago, ten of my 21 students were international. This year, 3 of 13 were. In response, we’re creating our first formal marketing plan to promote the program.

But now that the program is off and running, I can step back. I recently appointed a faculty member as MBA program director. We’ve found that a small school like ours can achieve its goals, but only if we don’t try to be all things to all people. As our tagline says, “We offer world-class education in a personal environment,” and we mean that. To make our MBA a success, we knew we couldn’t do anything to take away from that personal touch.

Toms’ next challenge is to grow a 2+2 program for people who have two-year associate degrees, or have dropped out of college with strong GPAs, who would like to complete their bachelor’s degrees in management. She plans to use some of the same methods used to build the school’s MBA program— including growing enrollments through word of mouth.


Ilene Kleinsorge, Dean and Sara Hart Kimball Chair, College of Business Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon

When I became dean in 2003, two of the university’s initiatives were innovation and economic development. In response, the college adopted a single strategic initiative: pursue innovation and the entrepreneurial process. I wanted our college to be at the core of the Oregon State University innovation culture. The timing coincided with AACSB International’s call for business schools to play a greater role in sparking innovation, so our strategy also aligned with the direction that colleges of businesses were headed.

We started by launching a fund raising effort to create our first entrepreneurship program. Simultaneously we revised our curriculum so that all business students—majors and minors—would be required to take an entrepreneurship course. Next, we created an undergraduate specialization in entrepreneurship, and we hired faculty in entrepreneurship and strategy who also had undergraduate degrees in science and engineering.

In 2004, with donations, as well as revenue bonds secured by our university housing and dining department, we renovated Weatherford Hall, an old dormitory, as a living-learning community dedicated to entrepreneurship and innovation. Nearly ten years later, Weatherford annually houses 300 students pursuing different majors, as part of the college’s Austin Entrepreneurship Program.

Collaboration continued as the university reorganized in 2006, placing the colleges of business and engineering in the same division. This step created a dynamic environment where faculty, students, and other partners could collaborate and truly “live entrepreneurship.” In partnership with the university’s Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development (OCCD), the dean of engineering and I discussed ways to commercialize university innovations. That sparked a new program in which our MBA students write business plans for university intellectual property as their integrated business projects. So far, these startups have attracted nearly US$180 million in venture capital.

In the past two years, we opened a prototype student incubator as part of the Austin Entrepreneurship Program. Students are creating businesses from products developed in this incubator and even forming their own startups.

At the university level, the past decade of initiatives culminated with discussions of a university accelerator. Representatives from OCCD, the research office, and the College of Business met with faculty to make sure that we could integrate an accelerator’s activities into our curricula effectively. We wrote a strategic plan and formed an advisory board. Then, we received great news: The Oregon state legislature announced the need for a regional accelerator and the potential for additional resources.

In January 2013, we opened the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator. We had intended to pilot the idea first, then refine and grow it later. But instead, it quickly took off. Today there are 13 clients at the accelerator, at least ten interns, and a waiting list of students who want to participate.

To achieve our goal with constrained resources, we had to start small, think big, and plan for the long term. I think that two other factors also were essential to placing our college at the core of university innovation: collaboration and faculty support. As many deans know, collaboration is not always the easy thing, but it is always the right thing. We collaborated with donors, campus partners and leadership, corporate partners, and entrepreneurs. Most important, we engaged faculty in the process, because they are the ones who must implement our strategies and educate our students.

Kleinsorge’s next priority is launching a PhD program, which will begin this fall and include a track in innovation and commercialization. The college also is exploring online learning, in part through the college’s recently launched hybrid MBA.


Alice Guilhon, Dean, SKEMA Business School, Lille, Sophia Antipolis, and Paris, France; Suzhou, China; and Raleigh, North Carolina

In 2009, as dean of CERAM Business School in France, I knew our school needed to expand globally, but we didn’t have the size or resources. That same year, I visited the ESC-Lille School of Management as part of an EQUIS peer review team. There, I discovered that CERAM and Lille shared the same global vision but faced similar limitations. By March 2009, both schools decided that merging into one institution would be critical to their global development.

We felt our time would be better spent developing the new school’s culture than dragging out negotiations, so we proceeded quickly. I chose a team of influential people from CERAM and Lille—five from each school—who could act for the merger. Together, we met from March through June to work out every detail of the organization, finances, and strategy for the global business school of our dreams. We didn’t want anyone to ask us a question that we couldn’t answer. No one outside our group knew of the merger until we announced SKEMA’s creation on June 30, 2009.

Some might question our need for secrecy, but we knew that we could move rapidly only if we chose the right people and kept our team small. However, we also knew that faculty and staff at both schools were aware of the need for global growth and ready for a change.

Over the next three years, SKEMA developed just as we’d hoped. In the first year, we focused on global development, including opening our North Carolina campus (CERAM already had a campus in Asia). The second year, we completed our EQUIS reaccreditation. The third year, we consolidated systems, replacing our student registration and ERP processes for each campus with a single integrated system to support a global, multi-campus structure.

The disadvantage of merging so quickly was that we didn’t have time to prepare everyone for the new culture. For that reason, just after the merger’s announcement, I met with the union and staff, the human resources department, and the board of directors. I asked the ten faculty champions to organize team-building activities and hold meetings with faculty and staff to explain why the merger was so critical. I had expected resistance, but faculty were excited to have greater global mobility and develop more global corporate contacts.

In a short time, I have been able to show everyone evidence of the merger’s success. The number of applicants to our North Carolina campus has doubled since its opening, and we received positive feedback during our EQUIS reaccreditation process. Such external reinforcement has proven that SKEMA is on the right path.

I learned a great deal during this process. First, don’t be afraid to move quickly. With something as complex as a merger, it is tempting to spend a long time negotiating and transitioning, but that leaves less time to work toward the goals the merger is meant to achieve. Second, tackle all governance issues before the merger; otherwise, faculty and staff could be confused about the management structure.

In the end, the merger was successful because faculty and staff were ready to do something different. After just four years, they are proud to be involved in building a truly global business school.

Guilhon’s next priority is to achieve AACSB accreditation. In addition, she will lead the effort to launch a new campus in Brazil in 2015 and to move the school’s headquarters to Paris to increase its global visibility.


Eli Jones, Dean, Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

The University of Arkansas soon will be celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary—a mark of its rich history and traditions. But going forward, we must balance the power of the university’s 150-yearold brand with the demands of accelerating change. Business school deans—especially those at public universities—must become change management specialists. We must be more innovative. One of my biggest challenges as dean is fi nding ways to communicate this need to the college. I must encourage our faculty members, who are steeped in academic tradition, to embrace change and continuously innovate.

In the summer of 2013, I created the Walton College Innovation Award as one way to build a culture of innovation at our school. Each year, the award will recognize the department that has acted the most innovatively over the past 12 months in an area that our school wants to develop. The winning department receives additional funds in its budget to support faculty travel. Its faculty also can proudly display the Innovation Cup in the hallway outside their offices.

Last fall, I gave the inaugural Innovation Award to our supply chain department, whose faculty worked with our supply chain management outreach center to create a spectacular conference. They reimagined an executive education program that we normally would deliver to 30 individuals into an event for 300 executives from a multinational transportation company. The company was thrilled with what its executives learned during the conference. Better still, the department tapped an area of growth that is very important to the fi nancial well-being of our school—executive education. The conference generated revenue for the department, deepened the department’s relationship with the company, and heightened the visibility of our portfolio of programs. Faculty members already are working closely with the company to plan next year’s event.

To promote innovation, a business school needs to both import ideas and export ideas. What I especially appreciated about the supply chain management conference was that it accomplished both goals, at a level of excellence that I want to replicate.

The Innovation Award builds morale, encourages teamwork, and offers opportunities for our faculty to make use of our 11 outreach centers at the college. My hope is that the award will encourage other departments to become more innovative themselves. After all, I realize that although we must respect our institution’s rich history, we also must continue to move our college forward. Innovation will be critical for us, because the truth is, change isn’t just coming— change is already here.

Jones’ next priority concerns the ways the business education industry will prepare the upcoming generation of business school deans, who he stresses will need “to be more entrepreneurial, more strategic, and more successful at change management than ever before.” He sees a need for more courses for aspiring deans, such as those offered through AACSB International. For his part, Jones has been inviting those interested in becoming deans in the future to shadow him for a period of time to learn more about the skills and responsibilities the job requires, and he hopes other deans will do the same.


Kai Peters, Chief Executive Ashridge Business School Berkhamsted, United Kingdom

Our corporate clients’ executive education needs used to be straightforward. Clients wanted fi ve-day mini-management programs or simple courses on strategy. But now they want training paired with team building paired with online delivery paired with coaching. Until recently, Ashridge wasn’t set up to provide such “one-stop shopping” easily.

Before 2013, Ashridge was divided into a management development department (for course delivery) and an organizational development (OD) department (for consulting). These two areas should have complemented each other, but they had different philosophies, paths to market, and pricing mechanisms. They were competing with one another— which meant we were competing with ourselves.

I spent the first half of 2013 tackling this wicked problem. We organized a Future Search summit facilitated by Marv Weisbord, an external OD expert. At the summit, faculty agreed that we needed to overcome our differences to focus on client needs, but they were reluctant to think about what that really meant—a complete shake-up of our organization.

To create a more integrated structure, we dismantled our two departments, replacing them with three integrated functional teams—strategy and innovation, people and leadership, and OD and change. We integrated our business development function to serve Ashridge more holistically. We fi rst appointed team leaders, who then appointed their team members. We invited people to openly apply for the new positions, hiring the best person for each position regardless of his or her previous role. For instance, our new head of faculty previously was our director of research; our new director of business development had been in OD. Some who had held senior roles before did not get new positions—many in this group retired or returned to the faculty.

I found that balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of our people was especially challenging. On the one hand, the institution was clamoring for clarity as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the appointment process needed to be deliberate, fair, transparent, and respectful. I wanted to make sure that faculty had time to learn about the new teams and interview for positions that best suited their skills.

Last June, we officially began operating under our new organizational structure. Since then, we’ve been working with clients at an unprecedented rate. We’ve also been handling increasingly large requests—we recently started a US$5 million project for a single client. We are lucky that we chose to restructure now, just as the economy is picking up.

As business schools, we teach organizational change, but when it comes to undergoing change ourselves, it can be like the shoemaker’s wife who goes barefoot. We don’t want to tell our clients, “Do as we say, not as we do.” At Ashridge, we now practice what we teach. Clients have told us how much they appreciate that we provide the services they want; they don’t have to seek out multiple providers. With that success, I can show faculty that this huge change wasn’t just because I thought it was a good idea. It was because it was what the market wanted.

Peters’ next challenge is to make Ashridge less susceptible to the ebb and fl ow of the executive education market. “Like consulting, executive education is unpredictable,” he says. “You don’t know what projects you’re going to win or what faculty you’ll need for it. This makes managing an institution such as ours a roller coaster ride.” To create a more predictable revenue stream, Peters plans to grow Ashridge’s degree program portfolio, online offerings, and online library services.