A New B-School Startup From MIT Sloan Reinvents The MBA Experience

mit sloan curriculum changes

A class at the Asia School of Business

MIT SLOAN PROFS FLY IN FOR ONE- TO TWO-WEEK INTENSIVE COURSES

Most of the fundamental coursework in such business basics as accounting, finance, and marketing is done in intense one- or two-week modules to make it easier for visiting MIT professors to fly into Malaysia, teach and then return to the U.S. And the emphasis on project learning — together with a six-week trip to the U.S. — has meant there is no room for electives at all.

“We had to design it that way, but it gives us a huge amount of flexibility to build in a lot of project and academic work,” Fine explains. “For the next few years, we will maintain that model. As we add more faculty locally, we will have more capacity to teach over the course of a semester and over time we will probably ramp down the Sloan faculty involvement.”

So far, just under two dozen Sloan faculty have been involved with the school, and Fine has hired nine professors from eight countries across four continents to the school’s permanent and local faculty. His hiring strategy is to focus on newly minted graduates from prestige Ph.D. programs. They lack the experience of professors who know the ins and outs of teaching in an MBA classroom, but they represent a long-term strategy to build an institution. Among the school’s early recruits are Ph.D.s from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Columbia.  “They are all young faculty, but we think they are people with high potential and they will grow with us,” Fine says.

‘AT FIRST I THOUGHT IT WAS A CRAZY IDEA’

Sloan Dean David Schmittlein first approached Fine in 2014 about the opportunity to create the school three years ago. Fine seemed an unusual choice then because he had limited administrative experience, though he had been on the faculty for 35 years and has been a consultant to many companies. Besides, he had never even been to Malaysia.

Initially, Fine says, he thought it was a crazy idea. But then he ventured over on his first trip in October 2014. He left highly impressed by Dr. Zeti Aziz, founder of the school and the now-former governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia. It was Aziz’s dream to create and scale a premier business school in Malaysia with an Asian focus yet global outreach, impact, and student, faculty, and staff composition. Fine says he also was impressed by the enthusiasm for the school from local business leaders.

He accepted the job in December 2014 and started in January 2015. Eighteen months later, in September 2016, the school’s first students showed up on campus.

“My arm really didn’t get twisted,” laughs Fine, who is effectively commuting 26 hours over a dozen time zones for the job, spending an average of one week a month in the U.S. with three weeks abroad.

A PERMANENT HOME FOR THE SCHOOL IS BEING BUILT AND WILL BE COMPLETED BY 2019

But the central bank and local business leaders have thrown their support behind the school. The first three or four intakes of students have use of the bank’s training facilities and a private upscale hotel where students reside. A permanent home for the school, including a residence center that will accommodate 700 students and 200 faculty and staff, is expected to be completed by 2019.

Just getting to where he is now — with one class enrolled, another on the way, and a staff of some 50 people — has not been without difficulty or endless hours of work. “The first year was like running a marathon at the pace of a sprint,” says Loredana Padurean, associate dean of the program. “It felt like we were in the woods with machetes to find our way. Now at least we have 50 in the woods with 50 machetes. We are not out of the woods yet, but we have 50 people hacking through the jungle.”

Fine admits his biggest challenge so far is “balancing the pieces.” “We have to simultaneously find students, faculty, and a set of employers willing to hire our students. Juggling those pieces and getting the balance is one of the challenges. Another has been getting our staff from 12 countries to work in a multicultural environment. For every step forward, there is a half step back. It’s been an adventure. It’s been stressful but fun. I am juggling a lot of pieces and I want it to work out. I am sure there are many startups where things don’t go so well, and you feel a lot of frustrations. But we are not a scrappy little startup. We have two very successful parents, and they have helped us a lot.”

‘CULTURE IS INVISIBLE AND THEREFORE YOU TRIP OVER IT MANY TIMES’

Putting together a higher-education startup in another country, of course, has had its moments. One Sloan professor missed his course in Malaysia because he broke his shoulder three days before his departure. And Fine has sometimes found himself in the middle of a clash between MIT’s entrepreneurial approach and Malysia’s more rule-driven culture. “MIT is a very egalitarian place, and we are trying to build a pocket of MIT culture in a place where it is a very foreign culture. They don’t see the world the same way, but we have to work together to build a common vision of what we need to accomplish. Malaysia is more rules-driven. At MIT, we’ve got to make our own rules, and here we are inventing as we go.

“A colleague of mine at Sloan says that culture is invisible and therefore you trip over it many times,” Fine concedes. “I personally have tripped over the culture many, many times. All you can say is, ‘I am sorry. I didn’t understand. I’m learning.’ Sometimes they forgive you, and sometimes they may think not so well of you. But we are learning from each other and learning how to be effective in interacting with people from different cultures. So it’s a very enriching experience.”

Even though the school was able to tap into the Sloan applicant pool, it also has had to change the rules on MBA admissions to some extent. Unlike established business school programs, ASB has what it calls a dual-track admissions process in which so-called unconventional candidates can apply for admissions without a standardized test score. In the first class, fully a third of the students went that route by persuading the school they have a high IQ to make it through a personal interview, a video, and recommendation letters. Not surprisingly, the school does not report an average GMAT score for the class.