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.


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.


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.’”

  • Bemused reader

    Wow, reading the comments here, it almost seems like an XBOX vs Playstation fanboys’ thread.

    My MBA’s better than yours! And your face is stupid!

  • hali

    why do you take things so serious 😉 take it easy my friend, we all know that IMD is the world’s best in picking its students, they know them personally before the start of the program, students at IMD are not just a numbers. IMD is far ahead of that factory, known inseed ;), you know it is very expensive to apply to IMD 😉

  • George the pretender

    After IMD received some flak because of his posts to promote his alma mater at the expense of other schools, he morphed from an IMDer to a U.S. business school wannabee.

  • You are wrong

    Wrong analogy! Rolls Royce isn’t Swiss.

  • George

    sorry, I’d like to add something important: most top american companies has a special recruiting scheme for MBAs through leadership or rotational programs or associates..most banks and consultants, big corporations use MBAs as prime source to develop next generation of the company leaders even for overseas markets and this culture is existed for decades. This culture of MBAs is not existed in europe for example, few (if any) of the big european corporations has similar schemes, I see Siemens CEO programs, Schneider electric Acorn, and few of banks, but it is still undeveloped and they prefer graduates of economics and management departments of Grand Ecoles, St Gallen, MPhil from Oxbridge, etc.. if fact, MPhil from Oxford is preferred in the city than an MBAs.. in france, Master of management from HEC is more prestigious than MBA, and so on…

  • George

    Recruiters are businesses, they recruit from US schools mostly for US north amaerican markets but also for overseas offices as well specially if the candidate from the country’s that they recruit for. And they recruit from non us schools mostly (if not completely) for non us markets. It is very difficult to go for US market if you did not graduate from non us school, (of course there are exceptional cases but they are not sufficient in number to built a case on). So, the main primary factor is if you want to work inside US go for US school even if it way lower in rankings, i.e Vanderbilt is far recognized in southern and southeastern united states than INSEAD and LBS. if you want global markets go for the school that better serve the area you target. However, as I said earlier, and as hedge since an MBA is done once in lifetime, it is better and more visible to do it in a good US school because it will serve you INSIDE and OUTSIDE US. and if you have not been in US before, then in fact you have to go there. Remember, today’s business even if we call it multinational, global, intercontinental, etc.. it is still built on US models of doing businesses, US still and will stay for at least next decade the major economy in the world and all the others just follow its footprints. Business schools in US are university based business schools and far ahead of the other. I am not saying INSEAD or LBS or IMD are bad, NO, they are terrific institutions, but they are not comparable to excellent schools in US in term of endowments, scholarships, job opportunities, prestige, life experience (I insist life experience), the education culture itself is different in US than anywhere else. living in US (I did live in UK, France, and New York) is very different than other places. Remember, more than 90% of cases studied at INSEAD, LBS, IMD and other non us schools, mostly from HBR, thats tell you something. The world’s currency is the US dollar! I want every MBA prospective NOT to forget these facts when considering his/her lifetime adventure called MBA.

  • Rec

    Most recruiters in the US are not familiar with INSEAD.

  • student

    Definitely an IMD student. I go to INSEAD. He is completely wrong. If you look at the INSEAD alumni database, you will see tons of alumni in a broad range of fields – banking, consulting, industry – and doing very, very well, across the globe. This is the truth. It is also completely untrue that you need prior MBB experience to get MBB. Many of my peers with no MBB experience are getting interviews now and I am sure will receive internships from them soon. I myself secured an internship from a top investment bank. As a general statement I would say that from my experience, recruiters in the US and Asia see INSEAD as comparable to a M7 and those in Europe see it as a top 3 school (globally).

  • Hussein

    It’s ok Nariman. By now we all know John is not that good at math, nor very good at naming the sources for his figures..