Oxford’s Saïd Fights ‘Bunker’ Mentality

Glass-walled front of Said Business School at Oxford University

Said Business School at Oxford University

When the dean of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School sits down to coffee and croissants with his students once a week, he likes what he hears. He’s presiding over a revamp of the school’s curriculum, and the feedback over breakfast has been good.

Not to say students didn’t already appreciate the university’s one-year MBA program as it stood. The latest rankings from The Economist show the Oxford cohort rate their program more highly than their counterparts at London Business School. Saїd’s students are happy, employers like what they get, and employment stats are healthy. Some 15% of students go on to entrepreneurial ventures, and the average graduate salary for 2012-2013 was $103,105 (£60,589).

According to Dean Peter Tufano, Saїd hasn’t removed the usual “bread and butter” fare of the MBA experience. In fact, the business school has strengthened some of its core disciplines. But the institution has also added a mix of less obvious elements – global awareness, a beefed-up entrepreneurial program, and broader collaboration with Oxford academics. Tufano hopes to leverage the expertise and prestige of the wider university more forcefully, a strategy that is also playing out at several other business schools, including Yale’s School of Management.


“The ‘why’ of this change is simple,” he says. “When I speak to CEOs and other business executives about what they need, they want rigorous training in accounting and so on, but they also want understanding of world-scale topics that you wouldn’t find in a marketing or finance course.”

This redesign is in part Saїd’s long-considered response to the criticism levelled at business schools in the wake of the financial crisis. “The sense that business schools are too distant from society and not wise about the context in which they operate,” as Tufano puts it. “If you surround business school students with a steady diet of business faculty and business speakers, it’s not surprising you’ll inculcate a bunker mentality,” he says.

The broadness of the “Oxford experience” already features prominently in Saїd’s offering. MBA students lodge on the university’s campus and dine or play tennis with students from other colleges such as Brasenose and Magdalen. In fact, Saїd has this year begun inviting humanities professors from the wider faculty to teach within the MBA program. “We have experts in philosophy or the arts all trying to figure out what it means to be a leader and make decisions in complex times,” Tufano says.

He’s also introduced the “1+1” MBA, which allows students to study for a combined master’s and MBA over two years. A few ad hoc groups and initiatives have sprung up among MBA and other master’s students. “This is what employers want,” says Dana Brown, executive director of the MBA. “People who can engage and communicate with scientists, policymakers – but not in the language of the Harvard Business Review.”


So, here is the nitty-gritty on the Oxford changes which take effect this fall. Three cross-cutting themes embedded in the curriculum will take effect in September: global rules of the game, entrepreneurship, and responsible leadership. These are critical areas for students to master, whether they end up in finance or social enterprise, Brown says. She’s pored over years of student and employer feedback to wring through these changes.

As for the global rules of the game, this tackles not only geographical differences in regulations but the informal rules operating worldwide. Saїd’s intake this year includes 43 nationalities–as well as a China expert and an African specialist who will join the team in September. The school also benefits from the university’s active Oxford India Business Forum. “We try to touch on most regions,” Brown says.

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