Trustee: Thunderbird ‘A Laughing Stock’

Robert Theleen is the fifth Thunderbird trustee to quit in protest

Robert Theleen is the fifth Thunderbird trustee to quit in protest

A board member of the Thunderbird School of Global Management said the institution’s partnership with a for-profit education provider will make Thunderbird “a laughing stock among its peers in the higher echelons of international business education.”

Robert A. Theleen, a 1970 graduate of the school who is a pioneer in China’s private equity industry, made the assertion in a resignation letter to the board of trustees. Theleen, who has also taught on the faculty at Thunderbird, is the fifth trustee to quit in protest over the school’s announced partnership with for-profit education player Laureate Education.

In a letter dated July 28th to his fellow board members, Theleen used especially strong language in denouncing the deal which will bring badly needed cash to Thunderbird which lost $4 million last year. He said the deal is “a tragic decision which will render our school a laughing stock among its peers in the higher echelons of international business education.” Thunderbird, based in Glendale, Ariz., has long been a pioneer in global business education.


Theleen charged that the partnership with Laureate will direct students to Thunderbird from Laureate’s “woefully inferior affiliates,” turning the school into “a second-class institution of higher learning.” The sale of the campus places Thunderbird “at the mercy of the for-profit objectives” and will cause “irreparable damage” to the school’s reputation.

Theleen joins four other trustees who have walked off the board in protest: Merle Hinrich, a 1965 alum who is chairman and CEO of Global Sources; Harry A. Cockrell, a 1973 alum who is director of Pacific Tiger Group Ltd.,  Thomas Greer Jr., a 1973 alum and co-founder of China Enterprise Capital Corp., and Donna R. Ecton, chairman and CEO of EEI Inc.

Theleen is not the first to use unusually harsh and passionate language to denounce the deal. Several of the other resigning trustees have also done the same. “We have no credible authority to lead Thunderbird,” Hinrich wrote in a July 1 e-mail to the board. “This is the end of Thunderbird as we have known it. … My personal belief is that the Laureate transaction is a tragedy for Thunderbird and a total windfall for Laureate.” Hinrich also disagreed with a decision to create an undergraduate business program. He charged it would be a “complete distraction to the original Thunderbird graduate study program and a destruction of the Thunderbird brand.”

Cockrell, meantime, said in an email to the board that the Laureate partnership “will inevitably change the culture and dynamics of the school as we know it today,” adding that “such fundamental shifts in policy and direction [are] not in line with the mission of Thunderbird.”

Three-fourths of what had been a 30-member Thunderbird board approved the deal last month. It is currently pending approval from the Higher Learning Commission, Thunderbird’s accreditor. The board appears to now have 24 members, based on a count from Thunderbird’s website. Theleen’s letter was obtained by Bloomberg BusinessWeek which reported on his resignation today.


Ever since Thunderbird alumni received word of the proposed partnership, many of them have protested it. Nearly 2,000 of the school’s alumni have signed a petition contending that the agreement with Laureate would “cheapen the value of the (Thunderbird) degree.”

The school’s full-time MBA enrollment has been steadily declining for years, falling to just 380 from more than 1,500 in 1990. Last fall, its entering class totaled only 140 students. The placement stats for last year’s graduating class, meantime, were among the worst reported by any business school in the U.S. Some 76.1% of Thunderbird’s Class of 2012 were without jobs at commencement.

Larry Penley, who became president of Thunderbird in November of 2012, maintains that the partnership is absolutely necessary due to all the challenges the university is facing in a still growing market for global business education. Over the past 17 years, Thunderbird has experienced a 75% decrease in enrollment for its full-time MBA program. Penley attributes the drop to a shift in the business education market.

  • Toys Rus

    A business school that is in the Red and CAN’T Place its students is either a failure or a FRAUD.

  • Anony

    The statistics are indeed shocking. As a 1978 graduate (at age 21 !) , I have always had mixed feelings about the place. It was never rigorous (I later did a PhD in economics) but it was fun, and there is something to be said for fun. While the Laureate transaction may indeed be folly, the undergraduate program makes some sense (again, think fun). Most undergraduate programs in business an/or humanities are paying for expensive curricula across campus in science/engineering. Cost-wise, Thunderbird could become highly competitive for the undergraduate students. In pursuing that market, they need not forgo a nimble MBA nor diminish their reputation.

  • mcommentator

    Thunderbird has been exposed for who they truly are and have
    always been which is a diploma mill. Thunderbird accepts some 70-80% of its applicants while most ranked business schools have acceptance rates of less than 20%. Wow, Thunderbird is really
    selective. Add to this a no name professor pulling down some 700 K per year
    (more than the Dean of Harvard Business School ) and serious ethical questions
    should be raised if not questions of fraud. The most important statistic,
    however, that points to the utter incompetence of the institution is the
    abysmal placement record for its graduates. Thunderbird fails miserably in this
    area. This school needs to be investigated for financial impropriety.
    Perhaps the most telling demonstration of Thunderbird’s true intentions
    is its “new partnership with Laureate Education. What the article does not
    state is that Laureate runs Culinary Institutes (The Blue Mountain
    International Hotel Management School-located in Australia, Fashion Academies (The Pearl Academy of fashion in India), Art Schools and the vaunted Richard W. Riley College of Education. Come on. Tell me what legitimate Business School would align itself with network of trade schools. These types of trade schools have long been known as money making schemes, promising students careers in high
    fashion or work in the best restaurants in the world. Do you think any top 25
    legitimate Business School would sink to these depths and risk its reputation
    and academic integrity. What does that tell you about Thunderbird and its
    motives. Thunderbird should just face the music and go out of business rather
    than continue down this path of the “Trade School” route ruining its reputation and greatly diminishing the value of the degree.

  • SnapeDawg

    I am Snape and Thunderbird has been put under a crappy spell!

  • Shitty Wizard

    Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? Who wouldn’t want to go to Hogwarts?

  • NiceGuy

    Harsh. I’d hate to go where you’ve gone (if you have).

  • Harry Potter

    Where do these Thunderbird alumns get the idea they were ever worth anything to begin with. Crap school — was before, is now…no change.