An Interview With Columbia’s MBA Gatekeeper

Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

So applicants need to get your attention in some unique or creative way? 

No. Sometimes I’m very fearful of the unique or creative application because someone will hear my words and say, “Oh, if I just do this, then that’s what Columbia is looking for.” And it’s not that. It’s literally what they did and what they accomplished that was just extraordinary. You see this person making a series of decisions that indicate they are preparing themselves to do something very, very special.

The people who do better in our process do more with a given set of inputs than their peer group — and they do it with a sense of humility, and they have a history of empowering others.

Amanda (Carlson), my boss, is a good example of what I’m talking about. She knows the names of the people who clean up our trash every day. She knows their names and she knows the names of their kids. There are not many bosses like that. And I’m talking to you because she shares the credit. When you have more leaders that do that, you want to work for that person. That person can build something very special.

I love to read and I love learning about American presidents. Even though I didn’t vote for him, there’s something about Ronald Reagan that I’ve always admired. He used to keep something on his desk in the Oval Office — a plaque, and the words resonated with me for many years. “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

Building upon that, and part of what it means to be a leader, how often do you spend time listening to people who have a different point of view from your own? The more we do that, the more we engage in that way, the better we become. There’s something to be said about real empathy.

Related to topic of presidents — what are you hearing from international applicants regarding their concerns about coming to the U.S.? Is it common to hear those concerns?

Yes, it’s common. I’ve been doing admissions now for 16 years, and I’ve heard more concern and more questions about our political leadership in the last two than in the 14 years prior. That’s a fact.

But the thing is, it is not our job to be political, it is not our job to opine on immigration policy. I think what schools need to do, and what we do, is more affirmation of our own values. What does that mean? I have been a student or administrator here for a long time. I’ve seen it from the classroom and I’ve seen it as an observer: When you put people from 50-60 different countries — people who are smart, driven, accomplished, who speak dozens of languages — in a room, magic happens. It literally happens. I’ve seen it personally.

On top of that, there’s a growing body of research into how to make better decisions. One of our own, (management professor) Katherine Phillips, did a study in 2008 looking at the way people make decisions, and what she found was that diverse teams come up with a much more robust solution set from which you can basically make a better decision. The thing to be clear about is, it also makes a decision more difficult — if you want to make an easy, quick decision, put the people who look the same, speak the same language, same race, same gender, put them together. But with people who are different, and when you empower that difference, that group with the contrarian views will come up with better solution sets.

One of the things that happened recently was the temporary ban on people from certain countries. We had a young man in our class at the time who was from Sudan. His classmates voted him to be one of the co-presidents of the class. And the thing about this young person is, if you’re from Sudan, you cannot access any loans. So his family sold houses to finance his education. If you ever met this young man, you’d see he is one of the nicest men you’ve ever met. He graduated and he’s at Microsoft now. He’s a wonderful person. His father was imprisoned. His brother was tortured. So he is part of a pro-democracy movement in his country. And at one point our country made a decision that “You can’t come in.”

So his classmates voted him president, not because of the way he had suffered but because he’s a great person. The point is, his presence in our classroom made everyone around him better. And I could say the same thing for so many others, because again, the values that I have described are values that have been honed and developed over our 100-year history. We started in 1916, so we have seen for decades that when you have people from 50 countries in your class, it’s a good thing. When you have faculty, most of whom are either not from the U.S. or worked outside of the U.S., that is a good thing. It makes the world better.

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