Professor Peter Tufano, Dean of Said Business School at Oxford University.
BUSINESS schools around the world spruik separate branding and identities, striving perhaps for a corporate-style feel well removed from the undergraduate spirit of the universities that spawned them.
But the head of one of the world’s newer business schools – attached to one of the world’s oldest universities – says his counterparts are missing out if they don’t embed themselves in their mother institutions.
“If I look at the kinds of opportunities facing us for the next 20 or 30 years, very few are in business and only in business,” says Peter Tufano, dean of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford. “(And) when I look at the kinds of excesses business has been accused of, much of it comes from businesspeople living in a bubble.”
Tufano says chief executives and boards are increasingly preoccupied with issues like the environment, energy security and generational change – subjects overlooked by business school teaching and research programs.
Tufano frequently quizzes CEOs about what is occupying their minds. The answers, confirmed by a survey of recent executive education program participants, are “somewhat humbling. For example, virtually every CEO stresses demographic change. Do business schools teach about demographic change? No. It might be in a lecture … but we don’t systematically teach about demography.”
Tufano argues that courses in finance, strategy and marketing no longer equip business leaders for success. Business schools need to prepare students who can engage with the bigger issues – a mission best achieved by harnessing expertise from many different disciplines.
“It’s always struck me as odd that business schools re-create the study of leadership and ethics, when hundreds of people study just these topics in universities like mine. But they happen to be in philosophy, history, literature and all the other parts of the university,” he says.
Tufano has put his money where his mouth is, with two initiatives designed to embed the school in the fabric of the university. One allows exceptional students to combine an MBA with any of the hundreds of the non-business masters on offer at Oxford – a scheme he describes as “almost a blatant rip-off of the Rhodes Scholar program”.
The other pulls together the school’s students, staff, alumni and global contacts to address major world issues through online forums and joint research. Last year’s topic, global demographic change, is being replaced this year by big data.
Tufano acknowledges that Oxford’s collegiate system, with every faculty member and student also attached to one of the university’s ancient club-style colleges, helps overcome the cultural impediments to integration. “They spend their lives interacting with people who don’t study business. This is a structural feature of Oxford that makes it far easier for us to pull this off.”
Economics can also keep business schools separate, with administrators unable to decide how to divide up resources. Tufano says Harvard Business School, where he taught for over two decades, is in some ways a victim of its “inordinate” wealth.
“With a three-plus billion dollar endowment, the rest of the university is a nice-to-have,” he says. “But it’s not essential to the mission of the business school.”
He says it’s theoretically possible for business schools to embed themselves in their universities while maintaining separate identities. “University presidents and deans would certainly think that way. But there’s not always connected tissue between various parts of the university. In order to make this work, you need those connections to go far deeper than the very top of the university – they need be at the faculty level (and) the student level.”