An Interview With IESE Dean Jordi Canals

IESE Dean Jordi Canals

Shortly after becoming dean of IESE Graduate Business School in Barcelona in July of 2001, Jordi Canals began having weekly breakfasts with groups of MBA students. Back then, their concerns were largely focused on job placement and networking.  They worried about landing a high paying MBA job and how their careers might progress.

Today, his MBA students want to know how they can have an impact on the world, how they can live more meaningful lives, and how they can get the most from a global experience where they are studying with students from 56 nationalities.

The change has as much to do with generational differences as it has to do with the success of IESE as a global business school. Today, those MBA students can pretty much assume that an IESE diploma will come with a lucrative job and a valuable alumni network.


Under Canals, the University of Navarra’s IESE has emerged as a major global player in graduate business education. When he became dean, 60% of the students in the school’s full-time MBA program were from Spain. Despite controversy over a global strategy that would significantly diminish the number of Spaniards in the program, Canals forged ahead to globalize the school, aggressively recruiting both students and faculty from outside the country and opening executive centers in Brazil, Germany and New York.

Spanish enrollment in the MBA program fell to 20% from 60% and significant improvements were made in every area of the school, from the faculty and curriculum to admissions and career services. The school’s success in the rankings tracked those improvements. When Canals took over the deanship in 2001, The Financial Times ranked the school’s full-time MBA program 24th in the world, while Spanish rivals IE Business School was 31st and ESADE, 64th. In this year’s FT survey, Canals’ school placed seventh, its best showing ever, ahead of IE at 11th and ESADE at 22nd. Poets&Quants’ latest composite ranking places the school’s MBA program as the best third outside the U.S., behind only London Business School and INSEAD.

When he was first asked by the university president if he would become dean of the business school, Canals was initially reluctant. “I told the president you are making a mistake because I am a scholar. I enjoy teaching and research. I have a passion for education. So I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to work. So anytime you think that I am not doing a good job or if senior faculty thinks i’m doing a lousy job, tell me and I’ll step down.’ The guy has been keeping me for a number of years now.”


Now into his 12th year as dean, Canals is also something of a statesman for business education. An economist by training, he a tall man who wears dark blue conservative suits and has the lean frame of a marathon runner. He keeps in shape by running, swimming and playing tennis, but his true passions are history and philosophy. “When I step down as dean, I will go back to teaching and research,” says Canal whose latest four-year contract ends this year (he would not say if he intends to renew his contract). “I have plenty of history to learn and plenty of philosophy to think about.”

His comments are often peppered with ideas and quotations from historical figures, everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Aristotle, and he’s particularly fond of period of history that stirred the American Revolution. At a recent conference on fiscal and monetary policy in Frankfurt, Germany, he drew upon Alexander Hamilton’s thoughts on the assumption of state debt by the federal government, a reference that drew a quick rebuke from one listener who decried him as “too pro-American.”

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