An Interview With Columbia’s MBA Gatekeeper

Columbia Business School’s Michael Robinson

Twenty years ago, Michael Robinson was a successful music publicist who counted among his clients Shaggy, the Jamaican musician, singer, and DJ. Robinson, himself a native of Jamaica but a resident of New York City for many years,  spent more than a decade in the music biz and did the press for Shaggy’s 1995 platinum-selling, Grammy-winning album Boombastic. The young publicist’s path seemed set.

He had never even heard of a MBA. But by the late 1990s, big changes were underway in the hip-hop scene, and “the music kind of went in a direction where I didn’t want it to go.” It became more about materialism, more violent, more misogynistic. He was done — but what was next? Trying to figure out what to do with his life, Robinson settled on business school — and being a New Yorker, he applied to Columbia.

“I consider myself a young man who found his way eventually,” says Robinson, who proudly describes himself as “a ’90s hip-hop guy.” “At the time I applied to Columbia, I did not know one person who had an MBA — not one. My friends were writers and producers and more on the creative side. So I had nothing in terms of admissions or application advice — but despite that, I was able to get in. My story was a little different, and I am very thankful for that.”

Robinson graduated from Columbia Business School in 2001, but he didn’t just earn a MBA — he found a place to make a career, taking a position with the admissions team a year later. Sixteen years later, he’s still helping Columbia pick the hundreds of new MBA candidates that it admits every year. “I love what I do,” says Robinson, now director of admissions. “And more importantly, I like talking to young people and helping them figure out what the next step is in their life.” (Robinson will be at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York this Saturday, Sept. 22, to talk to more young people.)


Michael Robinson of Columbia Business School

Columbia recently released its latest class profile and the big news was the average GMAT score, which jumped eight points to a record 732. But when Robinson talks about the admissions process at CBS, he de-emphasizes numbers and data and instead stresses the importance of values — “values that have been honed and developed over our 100-year history.” In particular he talks about how diversity results in better decision making, a process he calls “magic.”

“When you put together smart, accomplished young professionals from fifty to sixty countries who speak dozens of languages, magic happens,” Robinson tells Poets&Quants, citing a recent New York Times op-ed by Steven Johnson that explains how the decision-making process that comes from diverse groups is harder to do but better for all in the end.

“Homogeneous groups,” Johnson writes, “whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics, tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

“A 2008 study led by (Columbia) management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.”

Yes, Columbia’s average GMAT score is high and rising. Even as MBA applications declined by 2.6% this year, the average class GMAT score soared eight points to a record 732. Even more impressive, the average GMAT score for the entire applicant pool–including candidates who are refused admission–is now an eye-popping 713. But Robinson says it’s the students at the lower end of the spectrum who often intrigue him more. “I’m actually more interested in the people who are in the 500s and the 600s,” he says, “because if you listen to those stories, those people have the most amazing stories. I’ve been here 16 years and I’ve seen some amazing things.”


When Poets&Quants reported last week that long-time CBS Dean Glenn Hubbard intends to step down, Robinson reflected on the impact Hubbard has had his own career at the school — and the fact that he, Robinson, now is one of the longest-serving members of Columbia’s administration.

“When I heard the news,” he says, “my immediate reaction was a mix of sadness and pride. Sadness because Dean Hubbard was stepping down and pride because of how we have grown as an institution under his leadership. There’s a word that’s top of mind for me right now, and that is ‘stewardship,’ defined as ‘the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.’ Dean Hubbard to me embodied good stewardship: from raising over a billion dollars, to fostering a more collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to academics, to placing more emphasis on diversity.

“And since I view things through the lens of admissions, Dean Hubbard provides a great example for our students and  young alumni, many of whom will run and lead organizations one day. They too should aspire to be builders of enterprise and good stewards of that enterprise.

“Yes, he will still teach here, but I will miss his leadership.”

(See our Q&A with Michael Robinson, edited for length and clarity, in the following pages.)

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