The Politics Behind Wisconsin’s MBA Bungle

Newly arrived Dean Anne Massey has had a tough start at Wisconsin School of Business

The MBA students just weren’t buying it.

As Dean Anne Massey tried to justify the school’s already unpopular decision to suspend its full-time MBA program last Monday (Oct. 23), the tension in the room was palpable.

“When one of the associate deans introduced her, five or six people clapped in a room of 200 people,” recalls a student at the town hall. “She was clearly under a lot of pressure. There was tension in the air and in her voice. Sometimes she was using swear words because none of her arguments were being well received.“

‘I’M SORRY. I TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY. I WILL WORK TO MAKE THIS RIGHT’

At the Town Hall, students thought they would hear a cogent and thoughtful argument, with specific statistics on the program, in support of the proposal. Instead, they say, the dean merely pointed to general trends, including a drop in GMAT test takers (when part of that decline is merely a result of losing marketshare to the alternative test, the GRE).

“It was a little bit of a bummer,” thought one student. “Her arguments were just to sell the proposal. There was no good reason that we could see. She basically said this part of my business is running into losses, so let’s cut it out. All of her numbers and arguments were one-sided.”

If Massey failed to convince anyone in the room of the wisdom of a move that would most likely lead to a shut down of the MBA program, she at least apologized for how news of the proposal was announced. At one point, she put up a slide with the words: “I’m sorry. I take full responsibility. I will work to make this right.” And she even asked students to pardon some of the harsh language she had used in front of them.

‘WE MOVED TOO QUICKLY’

But there was no indication that she would backpedal on the proposal. “People walked away thinking, none of this will make a real difference,” remembers the student.

In little more than 24 hours, however, with pressure mounting from students and alumni, Massey did reverse course. “We have heard from our community of students, alumni, and friends; therefore, we are going to stop further discussion of the one-year suspension of the full-time MBA,” she wrote in a statement. “We moved too quickly without the broad consultation and discussion that our stakeholders can and should expect.”

Still, a number of fascinating questions about the fiasco remain: Why did the school pursue the proposal in the first place? Who actually instigated the idea of shutting down the full-time MBA? And how could a dean, who had only been in her job for 52 work days, act so hastily on a proposal that was almost certain to create controversy, if not outrage, among the school’s key stakeholders?

Though Massey has taken “full responsibility” for the bungle, the school is now acknowledging that the proposal “came from discussions with faculty.” That phrase, released in a statement to Poets&Quants, suggests that Massey wasn’t entirely to blame for the proposal which almost certainly would have had the support of the school’s faculty.

‘WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? WHAT SHOULD WE DO?’

At least publicly, the fiasco started with an email on Oct. 18th. That is when Donald Hausch, associate dean for MBA programs, informed students that the school was seriously considering a proposal to suspend its MBA program for a year while it conducted a full review of its academic offerings. Within minutes of that 5 p.m. email, the mobile phones of every student were abuzz with groupme text messages. “People were asking, ‘What the hell is going on? What should we do?,’” recalls Pradeep Raghuwanshi, a first year MBA student.

“There were a lot of thoughts flying around about how it would impact our degree. Overall, we felt it would reduce the credibilty of the school and make it harder to find jobs. I had no idea that this could happen. If I had any clue, I probably wouldn’t have come to the school. It was a shock for everyone.”

Leaked to The Wall Street Journal a day later, the email put the school in complete damage control. In response, the school issued a vague and less-than-satisfying explanation unattributed to any school official. Dean Anne Massey declined media interviews to explain what was going on.

An FAQ, hurriedly put up on the school’s website, suggested that the decision was entirely in the hands of the faculty, giving the impression that Dean Massey did not have full control of the process. It noted that the proposal would have to go through the business school’s Academic Planning Council and Master’s Curriculum Committee before a final faculty vote which had been expected as quickly as Nov. 6.

A Case Study Of A Bungled Decision That Turned Into A PR Disaster

 

Key DatesWhat Happened
August 7Anne P. Massey, after a near 21-year academic career at Indiana University, becomes dean of Wisconsin’s School of Business.
August 22The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business announces that it will phase out its full-time MBA program, with the incoming Class of 2019 being the school’s final cohort.
October 18Donald Hausch, associate dean for MBA programs, at Wisconsin, informs students in an email that the school was seriously considering a one-year suspension of its full-time MBA which would effectively kill the program.
October 20The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reveal the plan.
October 22Alumni create an online petition, strongly opposing the proposal. It would be signed by more than 770 people.
October 23A visibly nervous Massey holds a town hall meeting with angry students who walk away disappointed that the dean failed to make the case for the closure of the MBA program.
October 24 Oct. 25: Dean Massey reverses course, apologizing for moving too quickly “without the broad consultation and discussion that our stakeholders can and should expect.”
  • somsquared

    In the grand scheme of things, Wisconsin is irrelevant. Is anyone seriously surprised?

    I applaud the fighting spirit of the alumni, but all this is doing is prolonging the inevitable death of a failed MBA education experiment. Props to those who graduated from Wisconsin, but this last minute change of heart by the administration is the writing on the wall that this program is on its way out.

  • C. Taylor

    Haha! Thanks for catching that, Guerilla. I hereby award you two bananas.

    You can’t beat free human spellcheckers.

  • Guerilla

    Yo my dude it’s “guerrilla” not “gorilla.” Please get it right.

  • C. Taylor

    Solid piece, John. Wisconsin’s MBA is too great to shut down. Shares the lead for best in its tier.

    I don’t see anyone going into a deanship planning on announcing the closure of the MBA program within two months of starting.

    Someone was playing hardball in the no-dean-zone between Ortalo-Magné and Massey. Only blame that can be laid at Massey’s feet here is the failure to knock a few heads and put the plan on ice pending more serious examination.

    Who? The PhD program and centers would be the first place I’d look for a scapegoat or five. This power play / act of gorilla warfare should be laid directly at their feet and used as kindling where appropriate.

  • Spike

    “Ten years ago, for example, a group of 13 alumni came together to make an $85 gift to the school–not to name itself.” Woah! What a large sum! Could get a few Taco Bell meals for this…haha, but in all honesty, the dean holds the blame but not in its entirety. She didn’t send out that initial email. While she was in a position to help this unfold in a better way, I don’t believe this entire fiasco should fall on her shoulders. As far as Wisconsin looking for someone to ostracize and place the blame on, well…unfortunately it very well may be her.

  • RankingGuru

    The dean showed poor leadership and naive judgement capability. She should leave the post. It is much bigger than her.