Poets&Quants: You mentioned the economic downturn: What are your feelings about the future of the two-year MBA? We’re in a strong economy still, though some expect a recession; how do you feel about the future of the two-year, residential, full-time MBA program — in the short term but also long-term?
John Quelch: Well, I’m one of the few faculty members at a business school who actually completed such a program. I’ve often said that I think it’s unfortunate that for the flagship business program, which is the two-year, residential, full-time MBA, that on almost every faculty of every business school there is hardly anyone who actually graduated with such a degree. If I said to you, “Your daughter is going to go to a medical school, but excuse me, 90% of the faculty don’t have an MD,” you would say, “Why am I sending my daughter to that school?”
I think it’s very important that the MBA degree not only be sustained — and I’ll come to that in a moment —but that in addition, business schools work harder to develop an interest in their top-quality MBA students in continuing on to Ph.D. programs and a career in higher education in business schools.
Now going back to survival of the two-year full-time MBA: I’ve been asked that question for approximately 25 years. When I arrived at London Business School, I remember being asked this question repeatedly because INSEAD, the main competitor to London Business School, and IMD both had one-year MBA programs. The notion was that London Business School was somehow exploiting students by charging them two years for what someone else could actually deliver in one year.
My response to that was, “A one-year MBA program is what an institution offers that does not have a sufficient body of interesting and inspiring faculty to offer a two-year program.” When that was quoted in The Financial Times, I received a telephone call from the dean of INSEAD. The fact that I can remember it today obviously, indicates the tenor of the call.
Look, if someone has done a BA or a BS in Finance and they want to be on Wall Street, and they know that they want to do a finance major in the MBA program, maybe a one-year program is good enough for them. I think that anyone who aspires to being in general management has to have the multifunctional exposure and the opportunity to reflect on how all of these functions integrate with each other to drive business decision making. It’s very difficult for an ordinary MBA student to achieve that level of understanding in the space of 10 months.
In this fast-changing world, there are many individual students who are perhaps not sure of which direction they want to go at the end of their degree program. Or alternatively, they enter believing they’re going to be on Wall Street, but they discover something called marketing, which they’d never been exposed to before, and fall in love with that and become the CEO of Procter & Gamble instead. Those transitions, those self-awareness-type reflections, it’s very difficult for that to happen in a 10-month or one-year MBA when the recruiter is knocking at the door 10 minutes after you’ve registered for the program.
I hope you don’t get another call from INSEAD after we publish this story. When you talk of 10-month programs, there’s only one school you could be talking about.
Well, the dean of INSEAD is turning over at the moment, so I think I’m safe.
Is a return to the classroom something that you might like to do? I know that you’ve got a sabbatical, but if it’s not going to be another deanship, do you miss the classroom?
I actually do miss the interaction with the students. As you know, I’ve been a case study teacher all of my life, and no matter how many times you teach the same case, you still learn something new if you’re listening for it. If you are over-routinized, of course, you’re not going to find the nugget that you didn’t hear before. The case study method is a wonderful way of revealing new insights. No matter how often you teach a particular case study, if the students in the room are good, you should be able to generate more insight of your own.
Now, one of the things I was doing at Harvard before I came here, which I might like to go back to, I designed and taught a course that was 50% Harvard Business School students and 50% students from the Master of Public Health program. That was an exceptionally rewarding course because, well, first of all, I happen to have degrees from both those schools. In fact, I think I was the first person ever to hold master’s degrees from both those schools.
The beauty of it is that the first couple of weeks, an outsider who parachuted in could always guess accurately who was the public health student and who was the business school student. The whole purpose of the course was to render that observation extremely difficult by the eighth or 10th week of the course. In other words, that the students would absorb the perspective of the other, and accordingly be able to make a much more evenhanded contribution and recommendation as to what the protagonist should do.
A course like that would be very timely right now, in the world we live in.
Yes, exactly. We had a wonderful array of cases — of course, they were pre-Covid — that dealt with the marketing of e-cigarettes, for example, and the marketing of marijuana. They dealt quite successfully with the taxes on sodas in Philadelphia and attempted by Bloomberg and New York — a lot of great current issues in public health that had significant business implications. It was actually a wonderful course, and I think that’s one I might dust off and try and refresh.