Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management today (Oct. 2) had an unusual guest on campus: President Barack Obama. It was the first time a sitting President visited Northwestern since 1954 when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived to pick up an honorary doctor of laws degree.
This time, the President came not enticed by an honorary gesture but rather to deliver a major economic policy address. His one-hour speech was given largely in front of Kellogg MBA students who were chosen by a lottery system for one of the spots in the university’s 1,000-seat Cahn Auditorium.
How did Kellogg get chosen by the White House for the policy address, an undeniable PR and marketing coup for the school?
Kellogg Dean Sally Blount, who the President thanked by name during the start of his address, chalks it up to both faculty relationships and the diversity of the school’s students. “We represent such a diversity of political views and our MBAs go into a greater diversity of jobs in the economy than other the top five business schools,” says Blount.
TWO KELLOGG FACULTY MEMBERS HAVE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
It helped that Kellogg strategy professor Ben Jones has served as a senior economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2010 to 2011 and earlier in the U.S. Department of Treasury. And Jan Eberly, who teaches macroeconomic policy at Kellogg, had also been chief economist for the Treasury Department for two years before returning to Evanston last year.
Blount said that university president Morton Schapiro has spent time with the Council of Economic Advisors discussing the economics of higher education. The dean also has visited the White House, and the President’s speechwriting staff, she noted, also has some Northwestern alums on it. So when the White House began thinking about a business school as the ideal place for the President to deliver his address, Northwestern and Kellogg quickly came to mind. “It was all the relational things plus our diversity,” explains Blount.
“The majority of the audience was made up of Kellogg students which is what the White House wanted,” says Blount. “He wanted to talk to future business leaders so he wanted the heart of the audience to be business school students.”
WHY OBAMA WANTED TO DELIVER HIS MESSAGE AT A BUSINESS SCHOOL
Obama explained his thinking during the address. “There is a reason why I came to a business school instead of a school of government,” Obama explained. “I actually believe that capitalism is the greatest force for prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known. And I believe in private enterprise — not government, but innovators and risk-takers and makers and doers — driving job creation.
“But I also believe in a higher principle, which is we’re all in this together. That’s the spirit that made the American economy work. That’s what made the American economy not just the world’s greatest wealth creator, but the world’s greatest opportunity generator. And because you’re America’s future business leaders and civic leaders, that makes you the stewards of America’s greatest singlet asset — and that’s our people.
“So as you engage in the pursuit of profits, I challenge you to do so with a sense of purpose. As you chase your own success, I challenge you to cultivate more ways to help more Americans chase their success.”
‘I DON’T HAVE AN MBA, BUT THAT SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD RETURN ON INVESTMENT’
The President had some funny asides to the MBA audience that drew applause. At one point, for example, he noted that over a decade ago, America led the international effort to sequence the human genome. “One study found that every dollar we invested returned $140 to our economy,” he said. “Now, I don’t have an MBA, but that sounds like a good return on investment.”
Obama also ridiculed Republican attempts to push through tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. “In fact, just last month, at least one top Republican in Congress said that tax cuts for those at the top are — and I’m quoting here — “even more pressing now” than they were 30 years ago. More pressing. When nearly all the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent, when income inequality is at as high a rate as we’ve seen in decades, I find that a little hard to swallow that they really desperately need a tax cut right now, it’s urgent. Why? What are the facts? What is the empirical data that would justify that position? Kellogg Business School, you guys are all smart. You do all this analysis. You run the numbers. Has anybody here seen a credible argument that that is what our economy needs right now?”
Obama also asked for a removal of “the barriers that keep more moms who want to work from entering the workforce. Let’s do what Dean Blount did here at Kellogg,” he said. “She’s been working with us at the White House, helping business and political leaders who recognize that flexibility in the workplace and paid maternity leave are actually good for business.”