Dean Q&A: Rice MBA’s Peter Rodriguez

Rice Professor Yael Hochberg enjoying downtime on the Rice campus

The other thing that we’ve tended to do is to think about the stress that we put on our students in the program. We have high academic standards. We push them pretty hard. But we try to plan things so they always have good downtime and it’s very easy for them to engage in it. It’s also very social. That’s where our scale tends to matter. We’re small enough that we can provide all the same services to everyone in a way that’s a little short of turnkey. I feel like at the appropriate moment that our program offices have done a good job of understanding how to give our students an island of tranquility in a sea of stress. We need both of those things if we are going to push them hard to get good outcomes. So I think we’ve mastered that on the social side in a way that works well for us and for our scale. I think that makes a lot of difference.

By the same token, our alumni are easy enough to welcome given their scale. Don’t laugh, but parking is pretty good here. That makes it easy to come and be part of the school. That matters a lot. For our professional students, you can come in and park under the building. There’s a meal waiting. They go to the class. Get pushed hard, but come out and everything is smooth. So those little operational stress points, almost as much as anything else, keep the experience of a tough program manageable and bring out the best in our students.

An example of downtime is that every Thursday we have a Party On The Patio. Essentially, it is a meal that is provided with an opportunity for students to eat together. They’ll have some beer and wine. Usually, the weather is good enough with the combination of our indoor and outdoor spaces that they can relax and meet with other students. It’s also a cross-over point in the schedules of our evening and professional students and our full-time students. There are also cross-over points on the weekend with our executive MBA students too, so everyone gets a chance to cross paths with one another.

The other thing we do is we have lots of faculty engagement opportunities and formal programs. Given that we are in a very large city, we have lots of additional interest programming. For example, we will have a block chain day where we just talk about applications of the block chain in business. We had a conference where we discussed the modern machine age and what it means for job creation, creative destruction, and jobs and careers of the future. We had a diversity and inclusion conference last weekend that was free and open to the public. We have business plan competitions.

So there is always something built in and around convenient spaces in the calendar for someone who wants to add something to the curriculum that’s interesting to them. For example, we have something called Her World coming to campus in a few weeks during a time when we don’t have classes. This is a place where people talk about careers for women in the energy and tech industries. I wouldn’t call that Frisbee throwing downtime necessarily, but it is the opportunity to support another intellectual curiosity or help allay a stress point about career and making complex decisions.

P&Q: Rice Business also vaulted in Bloomberg Businessweek’s top 10 thanks to a 26 spot jump in performance among recruiters. What have employers told you about Rice MBAs? What makes them different and attractive to employers?

PR: The success we’ve had with our career office has a lot to do with matching as much as it is with anything else. I think we’ve done a good job of finding early the best directions for students. What I hear from employers is that the quality is very high. Quality is no big secret. They are looking for a pretty high combination — and not a very forgiving combination — of IQ and EQ. They have come to expect that we will solve the IQ for them, that we tend to bring in students who are capable of performing well in their organizations.

The combination of the rest comes down to, is this student headed in a direction that makes sense? In other words, do they know what they want enough for me to invest in them and expect in a few years a minimum return? I think that’s where we’ve been adding a lot of value. We tend to get students and bring them through the program in a way that makes them more thoughtful about the careers that they want. They are willing to take on career paths that require the right level of patience and thoughtfulness in our students to go along with the IQ side.

Rice MBA students in class.

I think that’s because we are only entering a smaller class, so we can take more time in admissions and recruiting side to select on those criteria. It’s extremely competitive, so you have to select on all of them. Certainly, the academic capabilities of students matters as much as anything else. I think our choosiness separates us from [other schools] in some ways. There’s also a regional element to almost every program. We get a little bit of that too because a lot of students here think about the energy and healthcare industries. The magic tends to be relatively broad. I think we place in a broader set of industries than most of our peers. I think that has helped us to ensure the people coming out and the organizations they’re matching up with are really well-suited to each other. We tend to think of ourselves as better matchmakers is how I would put it.

P&Q: You spent 13 years as a professor and senior associate dean at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. In one of your tweets, you mentioned that you were looking forward to “trying out new ideas.” What are some things, be it curriculum wrinkles or teaching approaches, that you are looking to bring over from Darden? What are some of these new ideas you are hoping to implement?

PR: One of the things I think that matters is scale. We had this at Darden and it was revelatory, even if it wasn’t always easy to execute. The very convening power of the university gives you the opportunities to create experiences for students that are really different than the generic classroom. If you can bring a CEO into the classroom with a case study, that’s a standard business school move and it’s important and it works really well. I think increasingly what I saw there that we’re implementing here is that we try to get more than one professor in the room at the same time. We try to leverage our geography. The city of Houston is very large relative to the scale of the school. We have a high proportion of Fortune 500 and even Fortune 100 companies around us, so we’re really blessed with the high traffic of c-suite leaders, CEOs, and hedge fund managers and the like. The more that we can bring them into an environment that’s crafted or even curated for them by the professor to leverage the insights of the practicing business leader and marry them with the theoretical insights of professors, I think it is a great combination for the students.

I think that is a little challenging. It takes time to pull it off well and be more than the drive-by visit. It takes smallsh class sizes. I don’t think you could have a genuine conversation of the most rewarding kind in a large group. So we try to keep the groups small, the presence high, and we try to get the right faculty in the room (if not more than one faculty member in the room). That’s largely worked for us.

It means other things that are more operational. It helps us to really work our calendar, to invite people for dinner or come in the evening and ask our students to do the same. Keeping the right hours helps us to leverage it or take advantage of Saturdays and weekends. We’re fully six days a week in everything we do — even career services. Part of that is our combination for the students and their timing, but it also helps us bring in people who are really busy.

So if we take advantage of the big city and the opportunities that are in the gaps between people’s day jobs and their weekends, we should bring a lot of people in front of our students. More and more, we’ve found that they’re willing to comprise and adjust their schedules to accommodate. It’s worthwhile and it’s a great additional element to the curriculum that we offer.

It’s hard for any school to get those executives during the work day, let alone the work week. We do use the gaps of the evenings and the weekend and we’ve found that even scheduling full-time courses for those time periods draws strong numbers of students because they get the opportunities that they wouldn’t get in other places. As a result, we can double up or even triple up if we have a c-suite executive come on Saturday. That is a usual day for the EMBA and weekend professional program and we find that our full-time students will want to be a part of that too.

Another thing that is going to matter is that we are moving to a required and included global experience for every student in every program.  That’s a new initiative. We certainly had a program like that Darden, just as they do at all top schools. I think the real value we feel for the type of community we want to offer and the brand of degree and program we’d like to promote is that this is something that everyone will do; we will build it in for everyone who comes. It will be a characteristic of the program. Part of that is a way to leverage the city. It is a real global city — energy, as you know, is very global in a particular way —and we think that we can leverage what we have here and the leaders we have here in a program that is distinctive and making it available to each and every student. It is a value we want to promote and we’re going to begin doing that next year.