Dean Q&A: MIT Sloan’s David Schmittlein

MIT’s Sloan School of Management

P&Q: You were named dean at Sloan in October 2007 after being a member of the Wharton faculty for 27 years. Looking back, what were the biggest challenges you were facing at the start? What types of initiatives did you spearhead to meet them?

DS: One of the things that people understand about MIT is that it has some points of distinction. In fact, a lot of other business schools can struggle to differentiate themselves a bit. When I came, there was a sense that there were some misperceptions about MIT about how distinctive it was; what ways it was distinctive; and what the value of that distinctiveness was understood to be. We needed to work on that at the faculty, student, and alumni levels.

Of course, we weren’t only talking about that value there in our programs that we had, but also the programs that we wanted to create. So communications and having clarity of what MIT represented had to be the priority for us. As new dean back then and coming from the outside, MIT is a special place to me — but we had to say how. We must have people understand that in the same way and understand the value that comes from that.

We also had a very loyal alumni base, but it wasn’t engaged. As a consequence, we weren’t raising very much money philanthropically from our alums. We had a situation where prospective students liked us but not enough people knew us comparatively well. And we had a couple of senior losses among the faculty within a few years of when I joined. All of that, wrapped together, led to pride. At the same time, there was a bit of a crisis of confidence around the viability of the school for the long-term, both in terms of the financial viability and the viability of being well-understood — being perceived as what management education could be and should be that would be valuable.

We were also at the smallest end of a viable scale for a business school that had global aspirations for impact and visibility. It’s such a small program. One of the big benefits that you get is a tightly-knit class, but the alumni base is not so large. The perception of the strength of the network around the alumni can be a challenge in that way. You may not have the revenue base to support a staff that’s large enough to have cutting edge fund-raising, media relations, and communications. I thought that we needed to grow the school. The alumni, however, didn’t want to grow the MBA program for understandable reasons.

How would we do all of that? One of the things we had to do was to start to name the things that were great about this school and agree with each other that they were these things that we should build additional program visibility around. One of them that’s easy to say is that modern finance was invented here at MIT. It was Franco Modigliani, Fischer Black, Bob Merton, Stewart Myers, Paul Samuelson, and so on. So we ought to own the high ground with respect to what the world needs from finance.

That’s a part of the MIT legacy: The value of smart and the value of understanding complexity. So we launched a Masters of Finance program in 2008. At the same time, the Master of Finance degree has been hugely successful. Not only attracting really strong students but also in reminding the world that this is the place where finance is done. I would suggest to you, done better than anywhere else, more rigorously and telling the truth about what the world needs and doesn’t need through things like our recently-created Center for Finance and Policy.

Another thing that we did was to create an executive MBA program that was unusual at the time for the United States school of management because it was the once a month format rather than evenings or every other weekend. We did that deliberately because we wanted a U.S.-based complement to our Sloan Fellows program, which is largely non-U.S. professionals who come for 12 months. Their average age [of Sloan Fellows] is 40, so they have an amazing base of experience. In part, they are coming here to meet Americans. However, they weren’t meeting Americans. As a result, we needed to create a program that was the domestic complement to the Sloan Fellows program. So our executive MBA program draws from all across the United States. By design, it would have, on average, age 40 with 15 years of experience executives just like the Sloan Fellows program.

MIT opened on June 1 of 2016, a vastly expanded entrepreneurial center with some 7,200 square feet of working space

It is distinctive from other programs in two respects. One is the seniority of the population in the EMBA program.  Second, with the once-a-month format, it is not a regional-based program to any material degree. It reaches out all across the U.S. (including people outside the U.S.). That was another avenue to grow the school, to grow the staff, visibility, and historical imprint with senior executives. In fact, if you look at degreed programs for senior executives (15 years of experience or more), I believe it is the case now that MIT and INSEAD are the two largest providers of degree executive education programs for senior executives.

MIT’s motto, mind and hand (Mens et Manus) means that while we have incredibly smart faculty and rigorous curriculum, it’s also a place that is much associated with the lab; the bunsen burner of management, if you will, as much as the blackboard and equations. It’s always been a place where theory and practice came together. So the senior executive programs are really important in that regard because they are a place that challenges incredibly smart faculty to bring those ideas right into the core of practice with already senior executives and put those ideas to work.

So we did grow the school, but not the regular, two-year MBA program. It admitted 400 students a year when I joined and that’s the number of students it admits now. I don’t have any expectation that we’re going to change that. One of the things that we understand is that across a two-year set of experiences, you can actually get to know 400 students. I know that because our graduates do know 400 people. You can’t get to know 600-900 people. When you realize that it’s not possible, you wind up only knowing 100-150 people. In a larger school, you know the people in your cohort. You know people who concentrated in your area or the people in your clubs with whom you were involved. But you don’t really come together as a class where, quite honestly, everyone knows everyone. The scale at which you can operate where everyone knows everyone is just about 400 people.

P&Q: You have a relatively small undergraduate program at roughly 50 incoming students. What benefits do those students derive in such ay do you maintain an undergrad program so small? What are your plans for it in the future?

DS: The undergraduate program is programmatic in the sense that there is a set of courses, a sequence, and advising that is made available to MIT undergrads. It is different from some other business or management programs in that you don’t have to choose it at admission as a freshman. It isn’t a separate college. All MIT undergraduates can choose to be physicists, mathematicians or study management. With the undergraduate management course, it’s not as if we would decide to have 100 or 200 or some other number of undergraduates coming in each year by using them in admission. You choose MIT undergraduates and they go where they wish.

1000 freshmen enter MIT each year. You wouldn’t probably expect (in fact the nation might bemoan if) half of MIT’s undergraduate population was studying management. I am proud that a lot of people, including double majors, choose to study in Course 15. We also have more minors than majors. Within Course 15, just this last year, we launched a three flavors version of the undergraduate experience. One looks a lot like our historical program (our management program). There are two other flavors: one in finance and the other in business analytics that parallel the specialized masters programs. Those have already seen an increase in the student uptake. It’s just a way to better serve the MIT undergrads.

One other thing I would say about the undergraduate experience (and it affects our graduate student experience as well): We don’t sequester students to the degree that other business schools do. We actually let our undergrads take many of our graduate programs. One of the things that is quite interesting is that you might have in one course a 28 year-old MBA student , a 40 year-old Sloan Fellows student who’s studying here from China National Offshore Oil Company, a 24 year-old Masters of Finance student, and a 20 year-old MIT undergrad. That is something that is pretty scary at other business schools. We make it one of the cornerstones of the Sloan experience. If you’re going to choose us, you really ought to choose being around incredibly bright, different people figuring out how this material can help them be more smart and inventive. That’s what you get here.

P&Q: Look ahead to the next 2-3 years, what does success look like to you? What would you need to achieve in order to fulfill your mission?

DS:  Success for us in the next 2-3 years or the next 200-300 years means being MIT’s school of management, bringing the best of MIT to management. Not just trying to find the next opportunity in the landscape of b-school competition, but understanding what MIT does better than anyone else and bringing that to management.

When you walk into the main entrance of MIT itself, there is a little dome over the entrance on Massachusetts Avenue. If you read the inscription on the dome (which comes from William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT), it says (and this is from the school charter), “The application of science to improve the arts, agriculture, industry and science.” For the next 2-3 years, what I want to do better is be that. That puts us at the center of what MIT is: Engineering, science, mathematics, and so on: what Rogers wanted MIT to be is that. On a good day, that’s exactly what we are.


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