The Politics Behind Wisconsin’s MBA Bungle

Wisconsin School of Business


To many, it seemed inconceivable that a dean, recruited from outside the university and the state, would make such a dramatic move. “Most of the students wondered how is it possible that someone who does not fully understand the culture of the school and who has been on campus for two months could propose something so drastic,” says Pradeep Raghuwanshi, a first year MBA student.

Over the weekend, as student and alumni outrage grew, an online petition went up opposing the shuting down of the MBA program. Hundreds of alumni and students signed the petition which ultimately gained some 770 signatures. The petition urged the business school to “maintain and improve the full-time program rather than dissolve it for lower-intensity MS degrees.” Then came Dean Massey’s Town Hall meeting that left students even more angry and disappointed.

What’s arguably certain is that Massey was less prepared for the job than the university had thought. She had spent her entire academic career—nearly 21 years—at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business as a professor of information systems, a peripheral discipline in most business school where finance, accounting, strategy, and marketing are the powerhouses. And while she also boasted eight years of experience as associate vice provost for faculty and academic affairs at IU Bloomington, that was largely an internal job, with no exposure to broader student concerns, corporate recruiting, alumni relations, or fundraising, all critical aspects of a dean’s portfolio.


When Massey was competing for the deanship with two other final candidates, the focus was more on expanding the school’s executive education offerings as a source of additional revenue for the school. In presentations during that process, sources say, faculty quickly asked how Massey would improve the MBA program to gain a Top 25 ranking. There was little, if any, discussion on giving it up.

If the proposal to kill the MBA program was her idea, how it unfolded raises serious questions about Massey’s judgment and leadership ability. There was the clumsy effort to inform students in an email that was bound to go public. There was the lack of a consultative effort to engage students and alumni in a way that would have diminished opposition to the move. There was the belated town hall during where a visibily edgy Massey failed to convincingly make the case for closure of the MBA program. Then, the consistent refusals by her or anyone else on the senior leadership team to be interviewed by media about the changes. And finally the embarrasing reversal in the face of strong opposition.

It was Henry Kissinger who once said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Some of Massey’s supporters believe she unwittingly walked right into a low-stakes, political backdrop in agreeing with faculty to end the program. Sources told Poets&Quants that the previous dean, François Ortalo-Magné, had unsuccessfully fought to close down some of the school’s 12 academic centers and faced fierce opposition from the senior faculty who ran such centers. The dean believed that the costs of some of the centers–which can typically range from $250,000 to $2 million–did not justify the value they returned to the school. “These are like babies to the faculty,” says the dean of another public business school. “Try to take them away and you will face a very big fight.”


Former Wisconsin Business School Dean François Ortalo-Magné

Not surprisingly, Dean Ortalo-Magné failed to rein in those costs. Instead, his singular accomplishment at the school was the introduction of a highly innovative and differentiated MBA curriculum. Under his leadership, Wisconsin organized its MBA experience into five learning dimensions that infuse consistency and purpose into every activity and course. The program’s framework boasts a non-sexy acronym called KDBIN (pronounced “K-D-BIN”), which stands for Knowing, Doing, Being, Inspiring, and Networking.

The KDBIN framework began to take shape in 2011, when the French-born Ortalo-Magné was elevated to dean. A Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota who headed Wisconsin’s global real estate master’s program, Ortalo-Magné was looking to foster greater collaboration both inside and outside the business school. He also wanted to build on the school’s strengths, which included its trustworthy, inspiring, and progressive nature according to research with alumni and employers.

Although Ortalo-Magné has said the outlines of KDBIN had been swirling in his subconscious, the actual framework for the approach was inspired by a lunch with an educational specialist early in his tenure. Afterwards, Ortalo-Magné came to an epiphany. “We already do the K and D.” But there was so much more than that.” After gaining buy-in from key players, the school identified outcomes and worked backwards to design assessments and teaching methods to reinforce the “student-centered” nature of the framework.

Page 2 of 3