Dee Leopold, the most powerful MBA gatekeeper in the world, is apparently leaving her job as managing director of admissions and financial aid at the Harvard Business School. Few admission directors brought as much experience or perspective to the job of MBA student selection than Leopold, who began sorting and reading HBS applications in 1980—making this her 36th year in admissions
Poets&Quants has learned that Leopold, who became director of HBS admissions in May of 2006, will step down from her job in May of 2016 after the school selects the incoming Class of 2018. Rumors had surfaced among MBA admission consultants over the summer months that Leopold might be considering a departure. But the announcement come as something of a surprise, nonetheless.
Over her years in admissions at HBS, she and her team of admission staffers, working out of Dillon House on the campus, have read and evaluated nearly 350,000 MBA applications, ultimately enrolling more than 32,000 students to Harvard Business School. Those students represent roughly four out of every 10 of the school’s 81,000 living alumni and include the most international and women graduates in HBS’ history.
During that time, she has seen deans of the Harvard Business School come and ago as her influence over the course of the school–and indeed all of Harvard’s peer schools–has grown in in formidable ways. After all, not only has she led a sophisticated admissions process that determined the ten of thousands of graduates who would get to put a Harvard MBA on their resumes. As the chief talent scout for the HBS, she also indirectly decided where many of the MBAs at Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg and other schools ended up.
‘WILL CONTINUE ON WITH THE WORK OF MBA ADMISSIONS IN A DIFFERENT CAPACITY’
Leopold has gained kudos for making MBA admissions at Harvard more transparent than ever with the frequent disclosure of information that many other schools either fail to share publicly or release to applicants and students much later in the admissions cycle. Her director’s blog on the school’s website has become a popular source of HBS admissions news and is widely read by thousands of applicants and consultants. She also carved out a reputation as an admissions official who became far more accessible than her predecessors and most of her peers, especially those at elite business schools. Recently, for example, Leopold consented to a novel interview with MBA admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg for Poets&Quants (see The Un-Interview: Harvard’s Dee Leopold With Sandy Kreisberg).
Applying to a highly selective school where the odds are automatically set against candidates who have known little adversity in their lives is a process fraught with uncertainty and fear. Yet, Leopold has long demonstrated a reassuring style to jittery applicants. “She is a calming, grounded presence in the face of much anxiety,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions and a Harvard MBA. “But she is funny, warm, and a great source of knowledge. Prospective students will still be well-served to go through her blog for insights on the admissions process and the thinking behind choosing a school.”
In the past five years, moreover, year after year, Leopold almost seemed to delight in shaking up the world of MBA admissions. She significantly reduced the number of required essays of applicants, a trend that has cascaded down to most business schools. At one point, she actually made the essay–an entrenched part of MBA admissions–optional to HBS applicants. In any case, Leopold was quick to change up applicant requirements to improve the school’s evaluation of candidates. It was also her idea to create the school’s 2+2 deferred admissions program to attract the most talented undergraduates.
Jana Kierstead, executive director of Harvard’s MBA program, announced the news yesterday (Oct. 27) in an email message to the HBS community. In a memo obtained by Poets&Quants, she wrote that Leopold “has decided to step down from her role…I’m happy to report that she will continue on with the work of MBA admissions in a different capacity.”
SCHOOL WILL ‘CAST A WIDE NET WITHIN AND OUTSIDE HBS’
It wasn’t clear exactly what role Leopold would play or whether her work would be at Harvard or elsewhere. “I know I speak on behalf of everyone at HBS when I say how grateful we are to Dee for her contributions past, present, and future,” added Kierstead. “She has served the School since graduating from the MBA Program, touching the lives of thousands of students and alumni. Her legacy is one of constant improvement, and she has been tireless in striving to refine and improve our processes so that we are admitting, each year, a truly remarkable cohort of new students to the MBA Program. From the 2+2 program to fellowships in life sciences, she has ensured that we remain true to our core principles while attracting applicants from wider and more diverse pools.”
A graduate of Columbia University, Leopold earned her MBA in 1980 from HBS, where she was co-president of the Women’s Student Association. Before attending HBS, she worked in New York as a portfolio manager for Merrill Lynch.
Kierstead, who is transitioning back to her role as the head of the MBA program after a two-year leave to launch HBS’s online initiative HBX, said the school will “cast a wide net and look at a broad range of individuals both from within and outside HBS. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in thanking Dee for her contributions to the HBS community and wishing her well in her new role.”
Admission consultants say they expect the school to hire an Harvard Business School alum for the job, not an unusual step for many schools. The leading inside candidate for the job is Eileen Chang, who has been in HBS admissions for many years as associate director. Chang popped up publicly in the spring of this year to relay news that Harvard had put 100 MBA applicants on its wait list, something that would have normally been announced by Leopold. But some say she may have no interest in the top job.