“If you build it, they will come.”
That whisper isn’t just heard by baseball-loving farmers wading through their corn fields. Every time a business school cuts the ribbon on a 400,000 square foot facility, deans are haunted by that same voice. Some academics call it an “arms race.” Others equate it to “keeping up with the Joneses.” Make no mistake: the expectations and pressures weigh heavier than ever on administrators. Some 15 years ago, a Starbucks stand, Wi-Fi access, and a sushi bar were considered luxuries. Now, they’ve been reduced to basics on every MBA applicant’s checklist.
Forget those Ivy-clad brick facades and musty hallways that convey a long line of grand traditions and celebrity graduates. These new buildings — spacious glass cathedrals replete with every tech toy and architectural influence known to man — are flashy marketing tools to shock-and-awe applicants. But prospective students aren’t the only audience. The blueprints, bulldozers, and baubles are another way to tap into the alumni. The pitch is enticing: A splashy building confers credibility. It increases the odds of attracting the best students and faculty. Face it: What prestige-conscious alums wouldn’t want to see their alma maters’ rankings climb — boosting the value of their MBA along with it?
BUILDING SETUP FEEDS TEAM FUQUA’S COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
Whether you look at Northwestern Kellogg’s forthcoming Global Hub or Yale SOM’s three-year-old Evans Hall, new digs are also an extension of a business school’s aspirations. Wrinkles like design, color, and materials have a bigger purpose than simply appearance. Look no further than Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. According to Russ Morgan, senior associate dean for the full-time MBA program and a professor of marketing at Fuqua, the buildings are consciously designed to use wide spaces and natural lighting to align with the school’s culture.
“Our culture is very much focused on collaboration, people intersecting, and the strong sense of community,” Morgan explains. “What you see is that most of our space has students interacting. Most of that space is on one level. You’ve got all these interactions that we want to happen organically that is facilitated by the space that we have.”
When applicants imagine Harvard Business School, they often picture wide green lawns, colonial red brick facades, and colossal classrooms. To an extent, they are accurate. However, few students can appreciate the scope of the school until they arrive for a campus tour. “We’re a business school only and we have 40 acres, 37 buildings, and 2 million square feet dedicated to that purpose,” pitches Andrew O’Brien, chief of operations at HBS. “That is one of the advantages. When I bring people to campus, they say, “This is all the business school?” They can’t believe it. It’s just an amazing size and scale.”
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Indeed, the Harvard Business School is a campus unto itself. As you’d expect, it carries a deeply traditional vibe that is prominent visually. However, it is not a place where buildings are crammed together or stylish architecture clashes with more colonial edifices. Instead, O’Brien has deliberately plotted out how the campus looks from all angles. Despite many buildings’ historic appearance externally, they are outfitted with the top-of-the-line bells-and-whistles internally.
“You can go into a classroom or the food court and they have all the modern amenities — wireless, AV, food stations, and different types of food from sushi to international tables,” O’Brien notes. “It’s not like we’re buried in tradition to our detriment.”
HBS students agree. In The Economist’s 2016 student survey, HBS received the highest marks from respondents with a 4.74 average on a five point scale. It was a tight finish though, as HBS barely squeaked past both Fuqua and Tuck at 4.73. Not surprisingly, the results reflect a student body that is increasingly expecting more from business schools when it comes to their surroundings. Among students from the top 26 schools cited by Poets&Quants, 15 scored their programs lower in facility quality over the previous year. More important, they docked their schools more mercilessly. Just two programs — INSEAD and HEC Paris — enjoyed an improvement of .10 of a point or more. By the same token, seven programs experienced a drop of .10 of a point or more.