Rising From The Ashes, Thunderbird Breaks New Ground

An artist’s rendering of the new Thunderbird Global Headquarters on the campus of Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona. The school breaks ground on the new HQ this month. Courtesy image

When we last reported on Thunderbird School of Global Management almost a year ago, the school had just received its best news in a long time. The Wall Street Journal had named Thunderbird’s Master of Global Management the best in the world. It was real validation for the direction of the school under new leadership, proof of positive change.

A great deal of good news has occurred at Thunderbird since then, says Dean Sanjeev Khagram, including more than $100 million in 2018 fundraising and full accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. But perhaps the best development yet will happen on Monday (October 7) when the school breaks ground on a new, $75 million Thunderbird Global Headquarters on the campus of Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona.

Arizona State purchased Thunderbird in 2014. It’s fitting that the B-school, named for the Glendale, Arizona air base that was its home for more than 70 years, should now be based in downtown Phoenix, because over the last five years Thunderbird has gone from a school in “chronic decline,” as Fortune magazine once put it, to a school on the rise — rising, if you will, from the ashes.

“Virtually all of our numbers are going up,” Khagram tells Poets&Quants, “whether that’s enrollment, internship rates, employment rates, incomes six months, 12 months after graduation. And so we really have been executing that very ambitious plan that I shared with you back in January with, really, a fervor. Partly because we have a great team and a lot of support from the broader ASU, but partly we really have just, I think, hit on a really nice chord of what Thunderbird can be going forward. So we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”


Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram. Courtesy photo

A litany of Thunderbird’s past woes is probably unnecessary; it’s been widely discussed and amply reported. To sum up, between 1996 and 2013 the school experienced a 75% decline in enrollment in its full-time MBA program; by 2012 the school was millions in debt and facing a major alumni revolt over a proposed partnership with a for-profit education company. By 2014 enrollment had plummeted even further; the school was purchased outright by ASU that year and the Thunderbird MBA was scrapped. “Uncertain” was the rosiest forecast Thunderbird could hope for.

Enter the new dean. A one-time child refugee from Uganda, Khagram is an American success story, from a childhood in New Jersey helping his parents run a gift shop to a Ph.D. from Stanford and professorships at both Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In mid-2018, after additional stops at the University of Washington and Occidental College, he took the helm at Thunderbird.

Khagram, a global political economist, is a globetrotter, having lived and worked extensively in 10 countries. Thunderbird’s deanship has, if anything, accelerated his travel schedule: Since July 2018 he has visited 42 countries (he thinks; he may have lost count, he says with a laugh). Key to his plan for the school’s “transformation” is the opening of new global hubs: When he spoke to P&Q in January, he outlined an ambitious curricular overhaul and plan for an international presence, one that embraced Thunderbird’s foundational identity as a creator of globally astute business leaders and leveraged its 45,000 alumni — known as T-birds — in more than 140 countries. Khagram vowed that the school would be in the vanguard for the coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution” by opening hubs, known as Centers of Excellence, in 20 countries, with a mission to “create a class of highly skilled global leaders trained to operate in a world where technology is unleashing exponential change, fundamentally reordering every aspect of how the world works and lives. Nine centers are open now; Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, Nairobi, and Washington, D.C. have opened doors since Khagram became Thunderbird’s dean and director-general.

‘The First Industrial Revolution,” Khagram said, “used steampower to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to enable mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now, a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, but results are not guaranteed. That’s why global leadership is critical.”

Thunderbird’s turnaround includes skyrocketing enrollment — a more than doubling of student population, graduate and undergraduate, over the last five years, from 461 in fall 2015 to 762 in fall 2018 and (preliminarily) 954 in fall 2019 — inching back upward, closer to the 1,500 or so the school had in its heyday in the 1990s. Since fall 2015, undergraduate enrollment has grown from 25 to an estimated 360, while graduate enrollment has increased from 436 to a projected 594.

In the flagship Master of Global Management, “we’ve doubled the number of applications and we’ve doubled the number of admitted students,” Khagram, speaking this week to P&Q, says. “We have 123 starting in fall of this year, this semester, in the MGM.” The school offers 16 concentrations in the MGM. Other degrees are being offered in select school locations, such as a recently announced Executive Master of Arts in Global Affairs in Washington, D.C., and an Executive Master’s in Global Leadership and Strategy that will be delivered in six eight-day sessions in six cities around the world. Both programs begin in January. In a year and a half Thunderbird will launch a master of management in the creative industries in Los Angeles’ Herald Examiner Building, which ASU has bought. Meanwhile, with the support and partnership of ASU’s Carey School of Business, Thunderbird now offers a pair of online degrees: a Master of Applied Leadership and Management and a Bachelor of Global Management.


Amid its transformation, Thunderbird needed a new home — which is why such a sizable chunk of its more than $100 million 2018 fundraising goal has been earmarked for the new HQ in Phoenix. Alumni donations in 2018 have totaled $15 million so far.  The five-floor, 112,000-square-foot, LEED Silver-certified building is expected to open in fall 2021 in time for the school’s 75th anniversary year. It will include an Innovation Lab and experiential hub, with a Global Situation Room, augmented and virtual reality suites, and a Language Lab steeped in Immersive Language Technologies, “the leading edge in language acquisition.” An interactive Global Forum will greet visitors with “a real-time manifestation of our global Thunderbird community,” connecting with the school’s 45,000 alumni and students “through social media interaction, with activity and locations being constantly updated and represented on this technology-enabled globe.”

It may be a long way from the school’s original home on an air base in the Arizona desert, but the new building is also a homage to the school’s unique origins. Each floor will contain historical kiosks chronicling and celebrating Thunderbird’s 75-year journey and “global heritage and connectivity,” according to the school’s description, while on the top floor the Thunderbird Pub will “evoke the ethos of 1946 and the founding of Thunderbird” while “showcasing the modern skyline of downtown Phoenix, with the symbol of Thunderbird lit from the roof into the Arizona night sky.”

“We brought the world to Thunderbird in our heyday,” Khagram says. “Everybody came out to Glendale, that sort of global village out there in rural Arizona. That was the magic, the secret sauce in some sense, as much as anything else — that campus. For a whole host of reasons, we’ve moved to downtown Phoenix, the fastest-growing city in the country, and now we’re taking Thunderbird to the world. We’re doing that with our online programs, which we are growing dramatically with the support of the broader ASU muscle, but a big part is these regional centers of excellence around the world.

“We’re practicing what we preach. We’re a global multinational business school. We want to be the first and best global multinational business school. And so this is our global headquarters, and we have our 20 centers around the world that we’re building and developing and launching. And it’s really that. It’s the heartbeat of this global network. And so when you walk into that first floor, you know, you enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

“You walk into that Global Forum with a ribbon of 20 screens connected to each of those hubs around the world, and a digital globe. As you walk up the five floors, you go back in Thunderbird’s history. And every floor takes you back to our origin, all the way to the very top, which you know is a very important part of the heart and soul of Thunderbird: our Pub.

“It’s a $75 million building and the city of Phoenix has contributed $13.5 million. So this is also part of our contribution to Phoenix becoming a global city. We have an incredible partnership with the previous mayor, now Congressman (Greg) Stanton, and with the current mayor, Kate Gallego. Our goal is to be a global catalyst from the local level at Phoenix, state level, Arizona, obviously in the United States, and then globally through our regional centers around the globe.”

See our Q&A with Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram, which has been edited for length and clarity, on pages 2 and 3, along with more images of the new Thunderbird Global Headquarters.

Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram, second from right, going over plans for the new school HQ. Courtesy photo


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