An Interview With INSEAD Dean Ilian Mihov

Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD

Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD

Even though INSEAD is nearing completion of a six-story Leadership Development Center in Singapore, Dean Ilian Mihov does not envision increasing the school’s already high MBA enrollment in the near term. In an interview with Poets&Quants, Mihov says he prefers to focus on building the quality of INSEAD’s MBA program rather than adding to the current 1,024 annual intake of students—which exceeds the largest prestige U.S. schools such as Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, Chicago and Northwestern.

“I think we are happy where we are,” says Mihov, who assumed the deanship six months ago on Oct. 1 after a five-month stint as interim. “We increased enrollment because we realized we were rejecting many people who were comparable to the ones we had here. But right now I am happy with this size. If I have to summarize the way I think about the program, it is one word: quality. I really want to increase the quality of the program, to increase the quality of the applicants and the quality of what we teach, and the quality of the jobs our students are getting.”

INSEAD is an unusual challenge for a business school dean. The school’s leader has to manage a multi-campus structure with campuses in Europe (Fontainebleau, France), Asia (Singapore) and the Middle East (Abu Dhabi). The Singapore campus has been a great success, but Abu Dhabi is still unproven. Mihov also has to figure out how to leverage digital platforms and avoid being left behind, given the huge potential for disruptive innovation in higher education. Yet his single greatest challenge may be something that is taken for granted in the U.S.: Mihov has to convince alumni to support the school.

FUNDRAISING WILL BE A MAJOR PRIORITY FOR THE NEW DEAN

Lacking the deep pockets of many U.S. rivals, fundraising is a critical priority because INSEAD is still working to build a global brand as a standalone business school without the resources or interdisciplinary clout of a larger university. Yet, INSEAD has only held two fundraising campaigns in its 57-year history. The first effort between 1995 and 2000 raised 120 million Euros, while the second between 2000 and 2008 gathered up 203 million Euros.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mihov detailed the school’s major challenges, explained his key priorities as dean, and expressed a desire to lead a significant fundraising effort. He also explained why he believes that INSEAD “is the most complicated business school in the world” and why some business school rankings “cannot pass the simple test of reasonableness.”

The veteran INSEAD professor brings to the job an insider’s knowledge of the school and its faculty. Other than a one-year sabbatical at Columbia Business School in 2004-2005, Mihov has spent the past 14 years at INSEAD. His commitment to the school was made when colleagues at Princeton University counseled him against the move. Mihov ignored what he called the “bias” of his colleagues in Princeton’s economics department who maintained that “you don’t go outside the U.S. and you don’t go to a business school.” Undeterred, Mihov joined INSEAD in 1996 after assurances from then Dean António Borges, a like-minded economist from Portugal, who promised him the resources to pursue a serious research agenda. At the time, it was not a no-brainer decision for the freshly-minted PhD from Princeton who after all had future Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke as his adviser.

‘YOU HAVE A BLANK CHECK FOR YOUR RESEARCH’

Borges, who died last year of cancer at the age of 63, led the school’s expansion into Singapore and, just as importantly, elevated the importance of academic research at INSEAD. (In a recent ranking based on the productivity of faculty research, INSEAD was the highest ranked non-U.S. school, placing 14th on the worldwide list.) Mihov was among more than 80 research-active professors recruited to the school by Borges. To this day, Mihov believes that Borges, who was at the school’s helm from 1995 until 2000, was INSEAD’s most successful dean. “He was an amazing person,” says Mihov. “He is the guy who changed the school to being research-oriented. He said, ‘We have to have an intellectual impact.’ I never would have been hired otherwise. I had a breakfast with him where he convinced me that any research project I wanted to do would be fine. He said, ‘You have a blank check for all your research.’”