Looking Back on a Legacy

AACSB’s retiring CEO John Fernandes reflects on 15 years of management education.
Looking Back on a Legacy
What do you think your most important accomplishments have been at AACSB?

First, I’m most proud of the quality of the people we’ve assembled here to further AACSB’s mission. That’s what makes me feel best about turning the organization over to a new person. Second, I’m pleased with the way we’ve been accepted globally. Third, I’m pleased that each time we’ve opened a new office—in Tampa, Singapore, and now Amsterdam—we’ve chosen the right location. These achievements are all sustainable for the organization.

What was your biggest challenge?

Changing staff culture to help the staff develop a more global mindset. Changing culture is the hardest thing to do, because it is embedded in long-standing practices.

My other greatest challenge was managing the relocation from St. Louis to Tampa. Many of the St. Louis staff members couldn’t make the move to Tampa, and leaving people behind was the hardest part of the relocation.

Why did you believe it was so critical for the association to globalize?

In recent years, management education has been growing much more quickly internationally than in the U.S. While the most experienced business schools were located in the West, student growth was in Asia and Africa and the Middle East. We needed to recognize and address that.

You oversaw two major overhauls of the accreditation standards. Why was it important to revise the standards? What still remains to be done?

We revised the standards in 2013 to be more applicable to a diverse set of schools worldwide, but they still could be improved. The biggest deterrent to globalization remains our narrow model of faculty definitions. In the long run, we can’t continue to legislate these inputs of quality. We’re on much more valid ground when we measure the outcomes of degree programs.

I also think we eventually will need to generate standards for technology-delivered programs. Technology is emerging as such a powerful delivery mechanism that we ought to be the leader in saying when it’s good and when it’s reliable. We’re still claiming online courses are homogeneous with face-to-face education. It’s not true.

What did the new standards get right?

They embrace executive education, which is important for the future of management education. Executive education represents a very high percentage of revenue in Europe and Asia, and it’s growing in the U.S. Degree programs are getting shorter, but we’re expecting more capacity from our graduates. Nondegree executive education programs can fill a lot of holes left by MBA programs that are too short, too generic, or too specialized.

The new standards also broaden some of the curriculum requirements. Now, we want schools not only to help their students develop a strong sense of ethics, but also to make sure students understand social responsibility and sustainability—of the planet, of the organization, and of society. Someone could be highly ethical without being socially responsible or committed to having a positive effect on society.

In the end, the themes of innovation, engagement, and impact are the icing on the cake. These are three concise messages that serve as capstones to the new standards.


“Technology is emerging as such a powerful delivery mechanism that we ought to be the leader in saying when it’s good and when it’s reliable.”


You’ve served on the boards of several organizations, including The PhD Project and the Global Foundation for Management Education (GFME), a joint venture of AACSB and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD). How was that service beneficial to AACSB and the industry?

The PhD Project is an important organization in the U.S. because we’re facing a big change in demographics. By 2050, the current minority will be the majority. We need to produce more minority professors, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, because we want minority students to come to our traditional schools. Right now, far too many of these students go to for-profit educational providers.

Through GFME, both AACSB and EFMD tried to determine how many business schools there are in the world. So far we’ve found close to 16,000. I think GFME has benefited management education because it reinforced something we already knew—that the number of business schools grows as economies grow. The numbers have proved that out.

What changes do you expect to see in management education in the future?

Most of the growth in management education is coming out of emerging economies in parts of the world, from Africa to Latin America. Yet students in these nations don’t always have access to education, and many business schools there aren’t yet as strong as those in developed nations. Institutions in developed nations can help schools in emerging economies develop their educational prowess, and in the process make their own brands more visible.

I believe AACSB should facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between schools in developed nations and those in emerging economies. We can be the eHarmony of business schools.

What other challenges do you see ahead?

In the developed world, the cost of a business school degree is frequently so high that many students are left with huge amounts of debt. How can we provide high-quality management education at a lower cost? One way, as I mentioned, is through forming partnerships with schools in emerging nations, which will allow business schools in developed nations to enroll more students.

Another way is through faculty leveraging, in which academic faculty teach low courseloads while they supervise teaching professionals who teach four or five courses a semester. Under this model, teaching costs can be cut by half.

What part will technology play in the future?

We have to use technology to enable the global classroom so that schools can share the teaching load and expand the volume of students they serve. We have to get better at assessment and validation of technology-delivered programs, but we will!

You originally studied business at Babson College. If you were going to business school today, what would you study?

I’d study financial planning and investments. Let’s face it, I’m an old guy who worked for a nonprofit—I have to manage on a budget! In fact, I will study financial planning—I’ll just do it through MOOCs.


To get additional perspectives on the challenges John Fernandes faced as AACSB’s CEO, BizEd spoke to three past board chairs: Andrew Policano, former dean of the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California Irvine and currently Dean’s Leadership Circle Endowed Professor of Economics/Public Policy; Carolyn Woo, former dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and current president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services; and Robert Taylor, retired dean of the University of Louisville College of Business and part of the committee that selected Fernandes.

ANDREW POLICANO: When John started, the association wasn’t doing very well financially, and it had a very focused strategy on the U.S. and North America. John recognized that we needed to become a global force for the quality of management education.


John really impressed me as someone who was going to learn every single part of the association. Shortly after he started, John went on an accreditation visit to the University of Washington with me and two other deans. On that visit, we were given 35 boxes of material—for a business school that had been accredited for a long time. John said, “This makes no sense whatsoever.” He told the membership it was time to redo the standards, and we put a lot of effort into making the accreditation process shorter and more efficient.

John is uncanny when it comes to political sensitivity. He’s very careful to listen as much as he can and solicit information from the rest of the membership. He will take a somewhat meandering course to move us ahead without creating a lot of undue strife and tension.

CAROLYN WOO: Because AACSB’s membership is so diverse, John had to respond to the divergent expectations of the members and the roles they wanted the association to play. He also had to do this in a very dynamic environment as schools became more international, faculty and student profiles changed, and schools adopted more technology.

John always made things happen while giving credit to the AACSB board. He always kept moving the ball forward, even though there was never full consensus on anything. But, compared to the individual members, he had a better understanding of management education trends. He saw the realities and challenges facing many different schools, so the picture he saw was much richer and more complex, and he was able to articulate those challenges.

For instance, John saw that St. Louis was not serving the association well. It was difficult to have that conversation with the board and staff, but step by step, study by study, John convinced us to make the move. People now see the benefit of being in Tampa.

ROBERT TAYLOR: We wanted someone who understood the association’s potential—who realized that serving the members is key, but who also would take a leadership position in the world of business education. We also needed someone who could understand and work with academics. John had an accounting background, so he understood the academic point of view, and he was full of energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.

After he became CEO, John quickly became friends with his counterparts at EFMD and other global groups, which helped the organization connect with others around the world. He also exercised incredible patience and asked thoughtful questions to lead the board to crafting standards that were flexible enough to allow quality schools throughout the world to be accredited.

We appreciated that John never told anything but the truth, even when it would be hard for people to digest. He was careful about how he said things, because he did work for the board, but he always said what he thought.