The P&Q Interview: Dominique Turpin, CEIBS’ European President

CEIBS’ European campus is outside Zurich, Switzerland


P&Q: You say CEIBS has a role to play as a bridge between China and the rest of the world. Relations have been better between Europe and China. What is CEIBS’ role?

Dominique Turpin: The Chinese-European relationship probably has been better than the Chinese-American relationship. Because obviously China and United States are two big economies. I mean, Europe is a bit of a funny animal because it’s one, but it’s very divided in a way. But I think the school has to be the bridge between China and the rest of the world, not only Europe.

I’ve been in a job for one month. But when I got the job, I received an email from a friend, a German guy who is running a major school in Germany. And he said, “You should meet with a China advisor to the new German chancellor.” And I said, “Well, yeah, why not?”

And I thought, “Well, actually, every European leader, when they need an opinion on China, they should think of us. Of course, they’re going to consult their own embassies, but the French embassy is going to give a French perspective and the German embassy is going to give a German perspective, while we are able to bring together 15 or 20 of the top thinkers on China from Europe. So I think we would bring something new. And the value proposition could be very interesting. So that’s one.

The second thing is, I think, yes, we could expand our activities in Europe, definitely, because right now the Zurich campus is used mainly for the executive program to bring the Chinese to Europe. But I think that we can certainly develop some activities for European executives; and in Zurich there is a polytechnic school which is one of the top in the world, a Stanford of Europe in a way. So we could probably also do a few things together. And I think the Chinese are invested in that because they’re investing in technology, and the technology people who are in Europe are investing in China. So there could be some interesting discussion to start.

And third, we have five campuses in the world, including one in Accra, Ghana. [CEIBS has three Chinese campuses: in Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzen.] But there’s one big missing piece: the Americans. This is something I need to discuss with my Chinese counterpart and to feel if they are hot on the idea or not. But as we have more and more tension, I think the idea of being this bridge between China and the United States is even more important. So we could also potentially look at Canada because the campus in Europe is in Zurich, in Switzerland, and as I said before, that is not part of the European Union. But if we had a campus in Germany, then the French would’ve been unhappy. So to be based in a neutral city like Zurich is actually a smart move.

Or a city like Toronto.

Exactly. But it’s a bit premature. As I said, I’ve been in the job for only a few weeks, four weeks, but I’ve been starting to think what could be my legacy when I step down in five years. So I said I need maybe three things to do, but not four, because four is too many and not two because it’s too small. Three sounds like a good number. And so as I said: Develop the campus in Zurich with my activities; work in Europe to advise government and businesses on China; and third, maybe explore what we could do more with the U.S.

We have to get past Covid first, right? Before we start talking about ambitious plans.

Absolutely. Yeah. But at the same time, it gives me time to think. Because I know that the moment I will be in China, I’m going to be dragged in all these meetings. And so it’s good in a way to have a little bit of distance because I also have a lot of Zoom conversations, so I reach out to my predecessors to get some advice. Also, I spoke to members of faculty, people who used to be faculty there and who are out so they can speak a little bit more openly about what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the school. Some recently hired professors, too. A lot of meetings with the different departments and people in the school.

Are you happy with the advice you’ve gotten from your predecessors? Any golden nuggets of advice?

I think since we have this double presidency, Chinese and European, the president of China [Wang Hong] speaks Chinese and not English, lives in China and he’s on campus every day — there is no way I can be at the same level. That’s clear, and the advice I received from my predecessors was that maybe I should focus on the outside and maybe less on the inside.

What would you say to potential applicants or even new admits to the MBA, to the EMBA programs? What would you say to them about their concerns with Covid and the accessibility of campuses? Is there a way to assuage their concerns?

Some of it is out of our control, but I think the positioning of the school is quite unique because we are really focused on China. So if you want to get some expertise on China, this is really the place you need to be. There are three types of faculty. You have Chinese in China, and you have Chinese who have double nationalities who get their Ph.D. in California or somewhere else in the United States, and then you have a number of Westerners, pure Westerners. So we have a few professors from Europe, but also America and India and Korea. We have quite a few Koreans.

So it gives us an interesting perspective for sure. Now, I think that the fact that we have this faculty that have been dedicated outside of China enables them to provide students, who because of Covid are mostly Chinese, with a new perspective. And here I think we have to be careful. I remember meeting with the CEO of Sony years ago when we were doing an executive program for them in Switzerland, and we are having this conversation over dinner. And I said, “Well, why did you choose IMD?” And he said, “Well, because you have no ideology.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, of course we are working with Harvard and Stanford as well, but for the Americans, there is one way to run the business: the American way. And for the Japanese, there is only one way to run a business: the Japanese way.” And he said, “When I looked at your faculty, it’s true that we have I think two or three locals out of 60 professors.” To keep this kind of, not neutrality, but to be able to provide different perspectives is certainly a big asset. And this is why I think Chinese are also looking at CEIBS as their first choice, because you provide obviously a Chinese perspective, but also an outside perspective. But it’s not easy to find in China right now.

CEIBS’ executive program is ranked second in The Financial Times, but the MBA program has been slipping. It was fifth two years ago, then seventh, and now it’s 16th. Is that a concern?

Well, yes and no. I mean, the MBA is still ranked ahead of IMD [which is 28th]. By the way, the Chinese are extremely attentive to ranking, so it’s very important — but obviously at the same time, as you well know, to run a school according to the ranking can be almost impossible because you want to do the right thing for the student. But I think that right now, honestly, I think the school people I met are relatively happy with the ranking. There is a bit of anxiety regarding the EMBA ranking, because that’s a major program of the school. This is what brings a significant amount of revenues. It’s the biggest provider of cash for the school. So EMBA is very, very important, of course.

The Financial Times, like most ranking bodies, tend to look favorably when programs increase their proportion of women in the program. And that’s something that your executive program could certainly use and I know that your MBA program could probably use that, too. Do you have any plans for increasing the proportion of women?

Yeah. Though compared to numbers in European schools, I know we are doing well. The proportion of women is between 37% and 45%. [CEIBS’ current MBA class is 40% women.] So it’s not bad. In term of faculty also, I think we are pretty good. Of course, good is not good enough, but I think we’re working very hard on this one, too.

What are some of the plans for that? And what are your plans for the next few months as you really get underway in your new position?

It’s a priority. What you see as another priority today is all stuff dealing with ESG (environmental, social, governance). We are putting a lot of emphasis on ESG. We had two forums in Europe (in September): one with a former prime minister of France and one with an EU official. Then (in October) we run two forums in China, one with the alumni, another with global EMBAs. We have tried also to make sure that ESG is present in the curriculum. Every school has to do that. I don’t know how it is in the United States, but if I look at what’s happening in Europe, there’s a lot of concern with ESG, especially in northern European countries.

And of course there is a lot of attention also regarding digitalization, the digital economy, and China has some interesting things also to be learned from. When you look at what’s happening in retailing, I think, you there are a lot of things that are happening in China — Alibaba and all that.

Whenever there’s a change in leadership at a business school, people wonder, “What’s the vision for the school? How’s it going to change?” So what would be your message about the Dominique Turpin administration? What’s your vision?

My background, I come from executive education. So where executive education remains a significant portion of revenue, they’re expecting me of course to help on that. And also, yes, in terms of international expansion, I’m planning to go and spend time in the U.S. to look for potential partnerships, to see what more we can do in the United States. Also in Europe — develop some partnerships maybe in terms of new programs to be launched.

And I will go in Africa in March to see also how we can boost our presence there. I was surprised by the numbers of activities that are run in Africa already, because Africa is the last frontier, and Ghana is an interesting country because it’s politically stable, safe. We’re already running programs with companies in Africa, in South Africa, in Ivory Coast. So even the French-speaking part of Africa, which traditionally has been in partnership with French business schools, is also talking to us because for Africa also, China is an important trade partner.

So my role, I think, my vision is really to let my Chinese counterpart grow a Chinese business in China and I will take more of an active role outside of China — which will involve her, by the way, because I think it’s important also for my Chinese counterpart to, when she can, be able to travel outside of China. She has been in this job two, three years now, but has not been able to travel.

She’s very keen to work with the top business schools in the United States and in Europe and the rest of Asia, for sure. And I will help her wherever, however I can.


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