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New Dean Has Big Ambitions For Oxford’s Young B-School

The new dean of Oxford’s Said School has big ambitions for the 15-year-old business school

“I see as much potential here as I did there.”

Peter Tufano is describing his plans for his first-ever deanship. And here happens to be Oxford University’s 15-year-old Saïd Business School, where 248 students work toward an MBA in a year, under the guise of about 60 faculty.

There is Harvard Business School, Tufano’s training ground of three decades, where more than 900 MBAs in each class tackle the hallmark business degree over two years, with guidance from 240-plus professors of various stripes.

“That’s a pretty amazing statement. We’re no where near the top of the heap [at Saïd], but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be. It’s all within our grasp,” he says.

It sounds pie-in-the-sky, but Tufano arrived at the young B-school in July 2011 under no illusions. He was moving across the Atlantic Ocean to tackle a little bit of bureaucracy, but to harness a lot of potential. In studying Oxford, he played the consultant – his pre-academic job – in search of the school’s sweet spot and the needs of the business world.

“I’ve tried to be pretty comprehensive,” he says of his nine visits before accepting the job, and subsequent 250-plus meetings with faculty, students – including accepted applicants that turned the school down – campus porters, CEOs, investors, executives, other deans and Oxford colleagues.

The resulting ethos may sound banal, he warns: “Failure to understand the rules leads to failure.” In practice, that means that one line of study – or ideas from a room full of MBAs – is not a guaranteed route to success. “To think that knowledge of traditional business school subjects will be enough is somewhat optimistic,” he quips.

His to-do list includes much of the bridge-building Tufano accomplished at Harvard, an institution known for its rigid academic silos, as well as with policy makers. “What wasn’t done was weaving our outstanding faculty, great students, and our specific opportunity areas together, and then into the broader Oxford University,” says Tufano. “We need to demonstrate that the model that is best equipped to succeed in this space is one that’s deeply embedded in the university. It will give us the best business school education around. We’ll really take advantage of our unfair advantage.”

Some structural links between Oxford’s law faculty, a new government school that’s about to open, and the Saïd school are likely. “The policy makers make some of these rules,” he explains. “Lawyers enforce others. We can combine all of the things we do to give more insight into how the rules of the game are influenced: that’s within our grasp. We have the raw materials.”

The Saïd school has come a long way since its inception, when some Oxford academics doubted that business management was a suitable topic of investigation for an institution like Oxford. “That battle has largely been won,” Tufano says. “Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t a B-school, there wasn’t a school of government, or a school on the environment. As far as I can tell, Oxford has gotten to the point that it’s embracing multidisciplinary (topics) and professional schools. I have energetic peers who see the potential here, and I don’t see a whole lot of resistance. HBS is a 123-year-old school, and there are still people at Harvard who still question its relevance.”

It also helps to have an American peer in Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, Andy Hamilton, who is the former provost of Yale University. Healthy links to Oxford are paramount for Tufano to succeed. “All of my MBAs are members of [one of Oxford’s 38] colleges, which means they can partake as much or little as they want (of Oxford). They eat and live and socialize there. They represent business to people who don’t study business. At HBS, students…are surrounded by people who share the same values about business. Our students absolutely have to interact with people who study science, medicine, [etc.,] rather than getting fooled into thinking that everyone thinks like you.”

It’s not surprising then that one of Tufano’s first initiatives is a so-called 1+1 MBA program that allows students to combine the one year MBA at Saïd with a selection of master’s of science programs offered by other University of Oxford departments. So far, four other Oxford schools have signed up:  the School of Geography and the Environment, the Department of Education, the Oxford Internet Institute and the Department of Computer Science. The program allows students to gain strong technical skills in a chosen area of specialization combined with the more typical MBA management training. The first students will begin this option in the fall of 2012.

Another Tufano initiative is a pre-internship program that will allow a small number of incoming MBA students the opportunity to do an internship in a select industry before the start of the MBA program. The aim is to help students wishing to make a career transition to try out an industry, giving them a head start on their post-MBA career transition. In essence, Tufano is attempting to eliminate one of the biggest drawbacks of a one-year MBA program–the inability to do an internship.