Vanderbilt Dean Doubling Down On ‘Personal Scale’

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management


The school also has launched a pilot course called Innovation Realization, an offering that brings together MBAs, JDs and PhDs in biomedicine and bio-engineering. The 20 students are divided into four teams who then spend nearly every week for a full year exploring how to commercialize technological inventions and ideas. The four teams are designing a diverse array of potential products from a device to prevent vein failure in dialysis patients to a 3D imaging system for lumpectomies.

Sadly, one of the school’s longer running immersive experiences—a week visiting with Israeli tech entrepreneurs–led in early March to the tragic death of a 28-year-old, first-year MBA student. Taylor Force, a West Point graduate who hoped to use the MBA to transition into a civilian career, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist along a popular seaside boulevard in Jaffa. Johnson first learned of the incident in a text message while leading another student trip in Guatemala City.

By the time his flight touched down in Houston, on his return to Nashville, he found out on a phone call that Force had died from his wounds in a Tel Aviv hospital. Though obviously shaken by the tragedy, Johnson says he has no intention of ending the annual student pilgrimmage to Israel for MBAs to gain the experience and knowhow of tech startups there. Short of bombs falling every day in Israel, he maintains, the trips will go on. The faculty member who led the excursion was back in Israel within a month of the stabbing.


Johnson had something of an apprenticeship for his role as dean. During a 14-year stint at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, he oversaw Tuck’s MBA program and its nine centers and initiatives as an associate dean reporting directly to long-time Tuck leader Paul Danos. His appointment as Owen dean represented a return to Nashville for the 53-year-old academic. Johnson taught at the Owen School for eight years from 1991 to 1999 before departing for Hanover, New Hampshire. At Owen, he twice won awards for teaching excellence and left the school as a tenured associate professor of operations management. He joined the Owen faculty after getting his Ph.D. in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University.

As a result, he returned to Owen with a wealth of pragmatic experience at a similarly small MBA program with a highly collaborative culture–and no undergraduate students. The biggest differences between Tuck and Owen is location and history. Owen is coming on only 45 years as a business school, while Tuck was founded in 1900 as the world’s very first graduate school of management. As such, Johnson is a true believer in a high quality, two-year, residential MBA program which he firmly believes provides the best chance for a truly transformative experience.

“The MBA is such a uniquely American concept,” he maintains. “It’s the idea that at the age of 28 you can reinvent yourself. You can change and recreate yourself into something new and different. That notion is entirely baked into the two-year MBA. There are many schools where you can get your MBA in the basement of your parents’ home in your underwear. But that is not transformative.”

Of course, another core attribute at the school–also in common with Tuck–is the superb outcomes for graduates of the school. Last year, the average starting base salary, which has gone up for four consecutive years, hit an all-time high of $108,255, a 7% increase from a year earlier. Job offers—with 92% of the class accepting their positions three months after graduation—were very close to record highs.


“Two-thirds of our second-year MBA students have offers in December now,” he says. “Those used to be great numbers in May. The job market for MBAs has been almost too good the last couple of years because that creates all kinds of behavorial changes in the market. Companies are getting to students earlier and earlier, trying to get kids locked down on a decision before they’ve had a chance to really think about what they want to do.”

Unlike many business schools, a larger group of Owen MBAs go into healthcare, which took 12% of last year’s class. “We have a robust healthcare focus,” emphasizes Johnson. “Nashville is the for-profit healthcare epicenter. One out of six hospital beds in the U.S. are managed out of Nashville and the ecosystem that creates in the city and surrounding area is huge. Millennials like healthcare in general because it feels like they’re doing the world some good in it.”

Ranked 29th best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants, Vanderbilt’s MBA program is in a competitive set that includes UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Emory’s Goizueta, Washington University’s Olin School, and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, according to Johnson. But the school also sees applicants who have applied to the University of Virginia’s Darden School and even at times Tuck “for people who want to be in a smaller school,” adds the dean.

Page 2 of 3