Harvard | Mr. Polyglot
GMAT 740, GPA 3.65
Stanford GSB | Mr. Rocket Scientist Lawyer
GMAT 730, GPA 3.65 Cumulative
Darden | Mr. Stock Up
GMAT 700, GPA 3.3
Stanford GSB | Mr. MBB to PM
GRE 338, GPA 4.0
Tuck | Mr. Consulting To Tech
GMAT 750, GPA 3.2
Stanford GSB | Mr. Classic Candidate
GMAT 760, GPA 3.9
Wharton | Mr. Sr. Systems Engineer
GRE 1280, GPA 3.3
Cambridge Judge Business School | Mr. Social Scientist
GRE 330, GPA 3.5
Darden | Mr. Federal Consultant
GMAT 780, GPA 3.26
INSEAD | Mr. Consulting Fin
GMAT 730, GPA 4.0
Duke Fuqua | Mr. Enlisted Undergrad
GRE 315, GPA 3.75
INSEAD | Ms. Hope & Goodwill
GMAT 740, GPA 3.5
Stanford GSB | Mr. Navy Officer
GMAT 770, GPA 4.0
Harvard | Mr. Milk Before Cereals
GMAT 710, GPA 3.3 (16/20 Portuguese scale)
Chicago Booth | Mr. Guy From Taiwan
GRE 326, GPA 3.3
Darden | Mr. Leading Petty Officer
GRE (MCAT) 501, GPA 4.0
Harvard | Mr. Sales To Consulting
GMAT 760, GPA 3.49
Columbia | Mr. NYC Native
GMAT 710, GPA 3.8
Tepper | Mr. Leadership Developement
GMAT 740, GPA 3.77
Harvard | Ms. Athlete Entrepreneur
GMAT 750, GPA 3.3
Darden | Mr. Education Consulting
GRE 326, GPA 3.58
Harvard | Ms. Ambitious Hippie
GRE 329, GPA 3.9
Stanford GSB | Mr. Unrealistic Ambitions
GMAT 710, GPA 2.0
Stanford GSB | Mr. Equal Opportunity
GMAT 760, GPA 4.0
Tuck | Mr. Over-Experienced
GRE 330, GPA 3.0
HEC Paris | Mr. Indian Entrepreneur
GMAT 690, GPA 2.1
Chicago Booth | Mr. Community Uplift
GMAT 780, GPA 2.6

Vanderbilt Dean Doubling Down On ‘Personal Scale’

Owen Dean Eric Johnson is doubling down on what makes the school's MBA program unique

Owen Dean Eric Johnson is doubling down on what makes the school’s MBA program unique

It’s not unusual for a new business school dean to take over the job and immediately begin working with faculty to change the institution. The change agenda usually starts with a strategic study that includes surveys and focus groups of employers, alumni and students as well as one-on-one sessions with a business school’s professors. And then there is a good bit of lobbying with faculty to shake up the curriculum, pressure admissions to hike GMAT scores of the incoming class, and possibly increase the scale of the MBA program to more quickly build and strengthen the alumni network.

Shortly after M. Eric Johnson became dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management three years ago, he hired Huron Consulting Group to guide the strategic study of the school and its positioning in the marketplace. They surveyed more than 1,400 alumni from class years 2006 to 2012 as well as MBA recruiters on their needs and views of Owen MBAs. He liked what he heard from employers. Owen MBAs, they told the consultants, are “every bit as sharp as the Wharton and Booth kids without the attitude.”

This time, however, the research didn’t urge a dramatic upheaval at all but rather a reaffirmation of the school’s size and culture. “The key ah-ha was that for much of the school’s life, it was often trying to create something different and special,” explains Johnson. “But we are like the Boston Pops. We are 50 faculty and we will never be 200. So how do we compete in a world where we will never rival Northwestern in marketing or Wharton in finance?”


The conclusion: To double-down on what makes the school already distinctive. “What makes us unique is our culture and our size so the bottom line is to stop looking longingly at Northwestern hoping that we can beat them at marketing. It’s about creating unique, personalized experiences that students can’t get elsewhere.”

Those findings gained reinforcement when Johnson unearthed an old video of a lecture by the late consulting legend Bruce Henderson, founder of Boston Consulting Group. Johnson had been an assistant professor at Owen when Henderson, in his last year of life in 1992, taught strategy at the school and maintained an office inside the faculty lounge. Though Henderson had earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, he gained his undergraduate degree in engineering from Vanderbilt. When he retired from BCG in 1985, Henderson returned to Vanderbilt to become a management professor.

In the black-and-white video from the late 1980s, Henderson holds forth on how organizations gain competitve advantage. In his short-sleeved white shirt and tie, Henderson lectures passionately that competitive advantage dervices from “a particular mix of characteristics with some particular elements in the environment. No two species can coexist and make their living in an identical fashion.”

For Owen, Johnson views those characteristics as a combination of culture, size, quality and attributes, while the environment is a richly creative city known as a music capital. It all adds up to what Johnson calls “personal scale,” a high-touch MBA program that is young, small, well-funded and at a university and in a city that has witnessed a resurgence. The strategic study found that alumni and employers identified the school’s five core strengths as its highly collaborative and positive student culture, its small learning environment, the strength and quality of its alumni network, the authenticity of its students who are described as genuine teamplayers who are “curious, bright and a little bit scrappier,” and finally, Owen’s location in Nashville, a highly livable and vibrant city.


To Johnson,  doubling down on these attributes largely means staying small, creating a nearly customized MBA experience filled with more s0-called “immersive experiences” and leveraging the school’s location in Nashville. “We really are taking this personal scale idea across everything we do,” he says. “The faculty started looking at the things we do and came up with a number of new ideas.” One example: An entrepreneurship immersion in conjunction with Nashville’s thriving new Entrepreneurship Center.

Another example is to turn what many other schools do, the annual career trek to Wall Street, on its head. For years, roughly 30 first-year students out of the entering class of 170 would venture to New York every fall to meet with executives at the top firms. But as newbies in the MBA program, they barely knew the difference between the buy side and the sell side.

So a member of the finance faculty—Craig Lewis, formerly the chief economist of the Securites & Exchange Commission—built an entire class around it, a deep dive into the functions of Wall Street from wealth management and investment banking to the buy side and sell side. “We have a chaired faculty member go to Wall Street with the students, have dinner with them every night to help them understand what they heard and saw during the day,” says Johnson. “When I tell other deans that we get a tenured professor to do that, they can’t believe it.”

Similarly, 28 Owen students led by one of the school’s other economists went to Washington, D.C., for a sitdown for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen. “There are some who would pay a fortune to have that opportunity,” gushes Johnson.

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.