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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.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.