Title: Dean, Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University
Career: Eight years as dean of Kellogg. Before that five years as deputy dean and 10 years as a professor. Was a professor in Guwahati University from 1980-83 before he went to the US.
Education: Masters in Mathematical Statistics from Guwahati University. Bachelors in Maths and Statistics from Guwahati University. PhD in operations research and marketing from University of Texas at Dallas.
Interests: Meeting people, spending time teaching (apart from being dean), watching Hindi movies, thinking about things.
When you took over as the dean, you had large shoes to fill. Don Jacobs had been dean for 26 years and obviously, the expectations from you were high?
It was very important for the next dean to find ways to create their own legacy, leave behind own footprints. Since I had worked with Jacobs for five years, I knew a lot about school and the important things we needed to focus on were building the Kellogg brand, strengthen the alumni network and globalising the school.
I found myself welcoming students on my first day in office which happened to be September 11 . That was a big shock to everyone. For me, personally because I was starting a job and I realised that this will be a tough year.
I anticipated that job market would be very tough. It was important for me to see that all our students got placed. I started reaching out to corporates, recruiters and alumni in a very proactive way. When I wrote to alums asking for help, I was criticised in the media by Lou Dobbs and others who said that the Kellogg dean is begging for jobs. But for me, it was very important to show everyone that Kellogg cares for its students.
The efforts paid off. That became a very big thing for the school and students. In 2002, when BusinessWeek rated schools in US, our placement rate was 91 percent, the highest among schools. We were rated No. 1 in the US after a gap of 10 years.
One of your biggest thrusts has been the globalisation of Kellogg, and that included setting up programmes and institutions abroad instead of setting up your own campuses. Why did you choose this route?
Kellogg is rated high in the US but it also needs high ratings in terms of global footprint. So, we started focussing on our partners. That has paid off very well. Our strategy to globalise Kellogg is an integrated approach in terms of connecting the dots. The idea is that we need to reach out to the best talent all over the world. We feel that if students can’t come to you, you go where the students are.
Kellogg should be the institution training the best people. But you can’t train the best people in your own backyard all the time. You have to go out.
The local market is always understood better by a local school. We provide the software and they provide the hardware. It’s very cost-effective for us. We run successful programmes in Hong Kong and Israel. We started focussing on partnerships and set up the Indian School of Business (ISB) in India. We build one piece at a time. We’ll add some other countries to this network as well.
My global efforts were to connect these programmes. People in the Evanston programme wants to know about doing business in China, so they go to Hong Kong. What we have done is created a foundation or a platform. All these people should be able to connect with each other.
We do have a second campus in Miami. We need to reach out to Central and South America and my insight is that the real capital of Latin America really is Miami. The future of competition for B-schools is collaboration. We created lots of alliances. In future, we need to see more alliance-type structure with local expertise and local talent.
At a time when business schools are coming under the scanner for their relevance, Kellogg has always had a slightly academic reputation. Don’t you think that that hampers the school’s image?
At the end of the day, we are an academic institution. We define our academics in Kellogg by saying we want our student experience to have academic rigour plus business relevance. Faculty members show how that teaching is used by companies across the world.
When things are going well in economy, no one says that business schools have produced all these people. We will continue to train students in the best possible way by combining rigour and relevance. We have been building this bridge of rigour and relevance and it’s an ongoing exercise. We have very good relationships with Corporate America. Our faculty members have consulted with the best companies in the world — they bring their experience.
Three years ago, we introduced experiential learning courses such as the buyout lab, venture lab and medical innovation lab. In the medical innovation lab, for instance, students from the medical school, engineering school and Kellogg work together to make an opportunity out of an idea. In the buyout lab, students work with a private equity company in buying a company. It’s a complete hands-on experience. It has gone down exceptionally well with students and recruiters. We believe that inter-disciplinary programmes are the way to go. Kellogg has joint programmes with the law school and the engineering school.
What opportunities do you see for Kellogg in emerging markets?
For business schools, it is very important that we think of the curriculum in terms of learning from emerging markets. Education shouldn’t be US-centric. We need to pay more attention to make sure that MBA students all over the world have a better understanding in what’s happening in different parts of the world.
Emerging markets have tremendous growth potential in future. Our students in the US need to know how business is done in other parts of the world. Which is why, business schools such as the ISB fit in very well with Kellogg’s strategy. These schools will provide the new body of knowledge that we would need in the US. We can’t just use Harvard Business School cases.
These schools can become knowledge creation centres. When our faculty go and teach at these places, they have high levels of excitement and interest. Academic institutions are always built on long-term basis. The initial results are exciting, but the journey has just begun.
We have plans for other emerging and non-emerging markets as well. We look at the whole world and see where we can do new things. Our next venture would be in Africa. The purpose is not to be everywhere in the world. But the idea is to see what’s the best way to create a programme that is well-integrated. The programmes we create all over the world need to connect with each other and feed off each other.
What has the downturn taught business schools?
The biggest lesson is that things are not always going to be rosy as many people think. So, we need to make sure students need to have a better understanding of risks involved in business decisions. Sometimes people take decisions without realising what’s behind them.
The other thing really is that downturn cannot be blamed on B-schools. Sometimes, people just say that when things go wrong, B-schools ought to change. When Enron went under, people said you need to emphasise more on business ethics. Now, the emphasis is on risk. That’s what makes the job more interesting. I don’t believe that everytime something happens, you have to go back and change curriculum.
But are we learning enough? That’s the key learning for us. A mistake is a mistake when you repeat it twice. This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we want to move forward and expectations get redefined.
The downturn has emphasised the need for schools to have good cost control. A lot of schools are heavily dependent on the returns on endowment. When that’s impacted, they need to adjust their cost structure.
The question is: How can they have an endowment plan where they are not subject to this level of fluctuation? Kellogg has a very different structure. Financially, we are one of the better managed institutions. We have this structure where we don’t go out and “waste” money. Our number of employees is lower than in other schools. If we are able to do with that many people, we have lower costs.
Others start laying off people. We don’t do that because we never had so many people. In good times, people build bad habits like spending too much, so they don’t see how things can change. When things get bad, they start panicking. We haven’t done any major cuts. Where needed, we have made adjustments.