Vanderbilt Dean Doubling Down On ‘Personal Scale’

Owen Dean Eric Johnson is doubling down on what makes the school's MBA program unique

Owen Dean Eric Johnson is doubling down on what makes the school’s MBA program unique

It’s not unusual for a new business school dean to take over the job and immediately begin working with faculty to change the institution. The change agenda usually starts with a strategic study that includes surveys and focus groups of employers, alumni and students as well as one-on-one sessions with a business school’s professors. And then there is a good bit of lobbying with faculty to shake up the curriculum, pressure admissions to hike GMAT scores of the incoming class, and possibly increase the scale of the MBA program to more quickly build and strengthen the alumni network.

Shortly after M. Eric Johnson became dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management three years ago, he hired Huron Consulting Group to guide the strategic study of the school and its positioning in the marketplace. They surveyed more than 1,400 alumni from class years 2006 to 2012 as well as MBA recruiters on their needs and views of Owen MBAs. He liked what he heard from employers. Owen MBAs, they told the consultants, are “every bit as sharp as the Wharton and Booth kids without the attitude.”

This time, however, the research didn’t urge a dramatic upheaval at all but rather a reaffirmation of the school’s size and culture. “The key ah-ha was that for much of the school’s life, it was often trying to create something different and special,” explains Johnson. “But we are like the Boston Pops. We are 50 faculty and we will never be 200. So how do we compete in a world where we will never rival Northwestern in marketing or Wharton in finance?”


The conclusion: To double-down on what makes the school already distinctive. “What makes us unique is our culture and our size so the bottom line is to stop looking longingly at Northwestern hoping that we can beat them at marketing. It’s about creating unique, personalized experiences that students can’t get elsewhere.”

Those findings gained reinforcement when Johnson unearthed an old video of a lecture by the late consulting legend Bruce Henderson, founder of Boston Consulting Group. Johnson had been an assistant professor at Owen when Henderson, in his last year of life in 1992, taught strategy at the school and maintained an office inside the faculty lounge. Though Henderson had earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, he gained his undergraduate degree in engineering from Vanderbilt. When he retired from BCG in 1985, Henderson returned to Vanderbilt to become a management professor.

In the black-and-white video from the late 1980s, Henderson holds forth on how organizations gain competitve advantage. In his short-sleeved white shirt and tie, Henderson lectures passionately that competitive advantage dervices from “a particular mix of characteristics with some particular elements in the environment. No two species can coexist and make their living in an identical fashion.”

For Owen, Johnson views those characteristics as a combination of culture, size, quality and attributes, while the environment is a richly creative city known as a music capital. It all adds up to what Johnson calls “personal scale,” a high-touch MBA program that is young, small, well-funded and at a university and in a city that has witnessed a resurgence. The strategic study found that alumni and employers identified the school’s five core strengths as its highly collaborative and positive student culture, its small learning environment, the strength and quality of its alumni network, the authenticity of its students who are described as genuine teamplayers who are “curious, bright and a little bit scrappier,” and finally, Owen’s location in Nashville, a highly livable and vibrant city.


To Johnson,  doubling down on these attributes largely means staying small, creating a nearly customized MBA experience filled with more s0-called “immersive experiences” and leveraging the school’s location in Nashville. “We really are taking this personal scale idea across everything we do,” he says. “The faculty started looking at the things we do and came up with a number of new ideas.” One example: An entrepreneurship immersion in conjunction with Nashville’s thriving new Entrepreneurship Center.

Another example is to turn what many other schools do, the annual career trek to Wall Street, on its head. For years, roughly 30 first-year students out of the entering class of 170 would venture to New York every fall to meet with executives at the top firms. But as newbies in the MBA program, they barely knew the difference between the buy side and the sell side.

So a member of the finance faculty—Craig Lewis, formerly the chief economist of the Securites & Exchange Commission—built an entire class around it, a deep dive into the functions of Wall Street from wealth management and investment banking to the buy side and sell side. “We have a chaired faculty member go to Wall Street with the students, have dinner with them every night to help them understand what they heard and saw during the day,” says Johnson. “When I tell other deans that we get a tenured professor to do that, they can’t believe it.”

Similarly, 28 Owen students led by one of the school’s other economists went to Washington, D.C., for a sitdown for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen. “There are some who would pay a fortune to have that opportunity,” gushes Johnson.

  • from Argentina

    I am honestly interested in understanding which programs actually only look for profit from the international students. I still would appreciate your insights, and all the international community would be grateful. At the same time, I didn’t try to offend you (if so, i am sorry) We are just exchanging points of view, no need to disparage my ideas labeling them as “miserly troll ” 🙂

  • Owen ’15

    don’t you just seem like a miserly comment troll.

    I’ll let you take a stab at the question yourself. Why would you focus on preying on deep-pocketed internationals (i.e. non-US citizens) for a graduate program that places students into jobs that require citizenship or sponsorship (which is in very rare supply). I know I connected a lot of the dots, but I’ll let you take it past the finish line.

  • fromArgentina


    First, I would really appreciate that you share your insights about which are the programs that do that. It would be very valuable for all the international students community to know that.

    Second, I dont feel “refreshing” at all that point of view. Why focus on internationals ? Dont you think that several schools admit Americans just because they can “write a check for full tuition” ?

  • fromArgentina

    “.. fewer international, the better.. ” ?

    First, what if the founding fathers of the US would have though like you? I would bet that you are not a descendant of native americans. I would bet that your their grandparents were born in other continents (as 99% of all americans) Would you think the same if your granparents were in a boat coming from europe to the US?

    Second, what if “internationals” like Wernher Von Bram, Albert Einstein or Elon Musk (among many others) would had been prohibited from entering the US ? what would have happened with their research or business in the US? What did they “devaluate” ? ( using your word )

  • bwanamia

    I’m in favor of more women, but the fewer internationals, the better.

    Was just college counseling my cousin the other day. Her response when I suggested certain Ivys was “Ewwwww, too many Asians.” Mind you, she goes to an extremely progressive, “learning how to think” private school: one of those places that talks endlessly about strength through diversity and way too liberal, if not radical, for my taste.

    In a certain sense, the schools with large numbers of internationals are hucksters selling valueless paper to clueless foreigners. Larger numbers of foreigners devalues the credential.

  • Owen ’15

    it’s refreshingly honest that Johnson pointed out the almost predatory practice of only accepting international students because they write checks for full tuition. I had a chance to know him very well and any notion that he would discriminate should be immediately dispelled.

  • I know Dean Johnson and he is a super person! The professors I took were nice and helpful even well after the class is over. All of my classmates are professional and just good people. Can’t say enough about Vanderbilt.

  • As an Owen grad, I can say Vanderbilt is definitely different for all the right reasons. I also graduated from the University of Washington business school and I often felt like a number, and it’s even more so after I graduated. But not Vanderbilt. From the Dean to the professors, everyone was supportive and made sure I succeeded, whether I was a student or an alumnus who graduated over 10 years ago. In short, I highly recommend Vanderbilt’s Owen.

  • David__D

    Then say international students. Picking out a particular country is suspect at best.

  • fromArgentina


    I followed your advice and I did some research about how diverse the program is. I compared with the benchmark that the dean proposes in the text : “… Vanderbilt’s MBA program is in a competitive set that includes UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Emory’s Goizueta, Washington University’s Olin School, and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, according to Johnson.”

    Please find bellow the statistics of each program (for women and international students)

    – Woman : Owen 26% (UNC 35%, Goizueta : 34% Olin 40% Rice 32%)

    – International Students: Owen 20% (UNC 32%, Goizueta : 35%, Olin 35%, Rice 34%)

    Do you consider diverse a program which only one out of four students is a woman, or only one out of five is an international student ?

  • C. Taylor

    “We don’t run our program as a cash cow filled with women,” “We don’t run our program as a cash cow filled with ethnic Africans.”

    Viewed this way, it’s not the best statement. Others are probably right that he was shortening it from this statement:
    “We don’t run our program as a cash cow filled with students we don’t have the capacity to provide job opportunities for.”

    Suggesting Chinese are those students shines a light on the US in general in its hiring and visa practices, and on the subconscious misunderstanding of many that discriminating against Asians is acceptable*. This is unfortunate and not unique to the guy or his program. When faced with such nescience, we should be both tolerant and frank.

    *Case in point, he would never had said women or ethnic Africans, but found Chinese acceptable. In each case, overselecting to one group might require relaxing an aspect of admissions. GMAT scores, for instance–or the fact that Haier is not as acceptable a previous employer as GE is in the US.

  • Wiseman28

    Just before he died, Dean Marty Geisel asked me to do a study of the top
    10 qualities of top 20 MBA programs that Owen could embrace. The next
    two deans were never interested and Owen plummeted to a stagnant 30,
    then broke the record by scorching to #37 and second tier in the Biz
    Week rankings. Still have the list. Don’t think most would work at Owen
    with the current faculty, but Eric is the ideal leader for all 10
    changes if he can create a fresh start there.

  • TJ S


    @from Argentina

    Reread what he said, and think it over.

    Other schools take advantage of international students to grow revenue. Those schools charge international students egregiously high tuition rates and often give them very little career support. That’s what he is talking about. It’s a real problem, and what he is saying is that Owen won’t stoop to that level.

    If anything, *those* are the schools you should be complaining about.

  • dr_esq

    Exactly. In the juvenile 21st century, being discriminating = discrimination.

  • Capisce

    You are misinterpreting what he said. Most MSF programs in the US are 90-99% Chinese students who receive no career advice other than “go back to China for a job”. They are brought in, pay tuition, go to class for their education, then go back home. That’s a “cash cow”. There are Chinese students in all Owen programs and they are there because they add value to the community, as do all international students. AND they are successful at getting jobs in the US and elsewhere because career service is provided. That is the difference. Students are not admitted to the Owen program–wherever they come from– just so the university can collect tuition money and fill the class. All students receive counseling and advice on their career path. International students even have a special career counselor as their advocate. That is what the Dean is talking about–the personal touch provided at Owen by faculty, staff, other students and alumni. If you knew the school, the students and the Dean, you would clearly understand that diversity is extremely important, and very much welcomed, at Owen. Intolerance and racism in any form are not.

  • from Argentina

    I cant believe that a Dean actually says : “We don’t run our program as a cash cow filled with Chinese students” . Although I am not China (I am from Argentina) I feel that his words are very discriminating. I must say that he sounds like the Dean of the “Donald Trump University”. Will he build a wall to prevent people from latin america to get an mba ? This kind of comments reflects poorly in the program and its students.