Dean Q&A: MIT Sloan’s David Schmittlein

MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein

In most circles, “megalomaniac” is not considered a term of endearment. The word brings to mind images of summer blockbuster villains hell bent on twisting the world into their image. At the MIT Sloan School of Management, “megalomaniac” takes on a far different meaning. Forget delusions of grandeur. At MIT, business students dream of taking on the world, not ruling it. Rather than centering power with themselves, they look to harness the talents of peers, understanding that answers are often multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary.

“MIT is a place where people want to solve really big problems,” explains Sloan Dean David Schmittlein in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Really big problems do not have as their answer, by itself, a single device, germ, new nano-material, or computer program. Yes, in many cases, science and tech are key to finding solutions, but so too are economics, sociology, psychology, politics — the people side. If you are going to be serious about solving the biggest problems — and we have the megalomaniacs who’ll take on nothing less — it requires that they actually work together across schools. It’s not a structural thing. It’s a cultural thing. That element of culture is very much alive at Sloan and MIT.”


No one would ever mistake Sloan for your run-of-the-mill MBA program. The school follows its own beat, with a bias toward action that embraces its “mind and hand” ethos. Sloan eschews the traditional two-semester system, instead embedding independent periods to free students to explore their passions, collaborate with other schools, and create the unthinkable. Over its 100- year history, the program has parented modern finance and pioneered experiential learning with its acclaimed Action Learning Labs. That should come as no surprise for a business school that’s part of a larger MIT community that is defined by synergy, innovation and “inventiveness.”

“This is a place where, all around us, people are proving the existence of gravitational waves,” Schmittlein observes. “They’re at the leading edge of fusion energy or they’re measuring blood pressure in your brain not invasively for the first time. All of that is right here within three blocks of us at MIT. Inventiveness is seeing what’s not there now in terms of organizational and technological opportunities and creating it. That’s a part of who we are.”

Such sentiments, like the earlier megalomaniac metaphor, might conjure up pictures of socially-awkward misfits huddled in darkened labs crunching exabytes of data to pinpoint the next financial bubble. In reality, Sloan deliberately cultivates a culture of smart and humble students who are “open to people, possibilities, the world, five different ways to solve a problem or five different ways to learn about something,” says Schmittlein. More than that, they are team players who are spurred on by the mission in their work. “It is a supportive community. It is a community of megalomaniacs, but cooperative ones. It’s not like any other community,” Schmittlein adds.


View of downtown Boston from MIT

It also is a diverse and far-flung community where a full-time MBA class may include graduate students from the engineering and life sciences schools, undergraduate wunderkinds, and seasoned international executives from the Sloan Fellows program. As a result, students are exposed to an array of perspectives. “That is something that is pretty scary at other business schools. We make it one of the cornerstones of the Sloan experience. If you’re going to choose us, you really ought to choose being around incredibly bright, different people figuring out how this material can help them be more smart and inventive. That’s what you get here,” Schmittlein emphasizes.

As dean, Schmittlein is at the center of it all. His tenure at Sloan began in October 2007 after a 27-year stint at Wharton, where he taught marketing and served as deputy dean for seven years (along with interim dean). A graduate of Columbia University, where he holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in business, Schmittlein is both scholar and practitioner. His work has appeared in such leading journals as Management Science and Journal of Marketing Research, while his consulting clients have ranged from AT&T to the Oakland Raiders. Despite a resume packed with appointments and speaking engagements, Schmittlein personifies the down-to-earth spirit of the Sloan MBA program. For him, his mandate is simple: Build on what is already great.

“Success for us in the next two to three years or the next 200 to 300 years means being MIT’s school of management, bringing the best of MIT to management,” he shares. “Not just trying to find the next opportunity in the landscape of B-school competition, but understanding what MIT does better than anyone else and bringing that to management.”

Last week, Poets&Quants caught up with Schmittlein to learn about the latest developments at the program. Looking to uncover what the school prizes in students or partners with the larger MIT community? Check out our exclusive interview.

P&Q: Looking at your MBA program, what three things are hallmarks of the MIT Sloan experience that makes it so distinctive from other two-year MBA programs? How do these unique wrinkles help students prepare for both the current job market and student’s long-term careers?

DS: One of the things that we’ve done differently (and more than other schools) is experiential learning. The reason that we’ve done it is that it is all from MIT — mind and hand, theory together with practice —where the best way to learn stuff is to get into the lab and do it. Here, the lab is the real world. We have global entrepreneurship labs, the Israel Lab, India Lab, China Lab and our structure as an annual calendar gives us an opportunity to send our students out for a month with entrepreneurial firms on make-or break types of projects. Other schools really don’t have that type of opportunity. They’re often on a simple two semester type of format. That commitment to experiential learning really comes from the MIT-ness of this place. That’s something our students really appreciate and benefit from.

For us, it’s not just a way to learn marketing or how marketing and finance come together or even how to learn how Chilean business culture works or what it is like to do a startup in Vietnam. It is a personal level of resilience, diagnosing the human dimension of management problems. That’s an important takeaway from these experiential learning settings. It’s one thing you don’t get the benefit of if it’s required. You can make someone learn accounting. You can’t make someone get a better appreciation for how organizations make a difference in local culture or how people come together as a well-functioning team. That is something they must choose. When you’ve seen some of the other leading schools, they, honestly, copy us a bit in the global experiential learning. To make it a requirement, you also, if you drill down a little bit, see the cynicism that students immediately have for something like this if it is immediately made a requirement. The substantial majority of our students do the global experiential learning, but not all of them do. We won’t make it a requirement because you have to choose it. So one of the things we do in admissions is try to choose people for this program, with 14 applicants per seat in a class, who will themselves choose these kinds of experiences voluntarily.