Kellogg’s New Dean On Preparing MBAs For A Disruptive Future

Francesca Cornelli, dean of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management

Francesca Cornelli, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

If there’s one thing that worries the new dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, it’s that she might not fulfill the promise of the job she began six months ago.

“I just hope I will do it justice,” says Dean Francesca Cornelli in an endearing Italian accent. “They gave me such a precious thing and I want to make the most of it. It’s not specific things I worry about. It’s can I make my impact?”

It’s not a concern that should keep Cornelli up at night. After all, whatever she has done up until now has been highly successful. Though trained as an economist and game theorist, she literally reinvented herself to teach finance based on her interest in the subject. Cornelli was the first woman to gain a full professorship at London Business School where she was something of a rarity: a female academic teaching private equity and IPOs, among other things. The Italian-born Cornelli, 57, was also the first woman to gain tenure at LBS.


As the new dean of the Kellogg School of Management, she is also doing something unprecedented: The 57-year-old Cornelli is the third woman in a row to serve as dean of the school if you count the 11-month stint of interim dean Kathleen Hagerty. No other business school in the world could make a similar claim.

Still on a listening tour that has allowed her to meet with every tenure-track and clinical faculty member as well as more than 300 alumni all over the world, Cornelli has yet to develop concrete plans for Kellogg’s future. But she is certain about the need to double down on what has made Kellogg a world-class business school since its emergence as a powerhouse in the 1980s. That would be its tight-knit, highly collaborative, student-centered culture and its history of innovation in business education, all with the ultimate goal of preparing students for success in a disruptive world.

“My job is not to get students the next job,” she says. “They will get a job and they will shine. But ten years from now that job may not exist anymore or will be completely different. We live in an era of change and disruption. What we need is to teach people to be adaptable, to see change and to embrace opportunity. So when people ask what is the value of an MBA, I say it’s not your next job. We want to impact all your life, the entire trajectory.


“And by the way, as life expectancy becomes longer, people will have multiple careers. People might experiment more in the beginning before finding the right career. Or after a long career, they might decide to do something different. Why should we prepare people for only one thing? I want to launch seeds in the minds of people.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, the former professor of finance at London Business School says that she strongly believes in the continued value of the MBA, maintains that the decline in applications to two-year MBA program has not diminished the quality of the students being admitted, and rules out the possibility that Kellogg would enter the online MBA space in the near future.

She arrived on campus just as applications to Kellogg’s two-year MBA program fell by 15.5% for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle. It was the second consecutive year of declining apps. Over the past two years, Kellogg experienced a 17.8% drop in applications from the record peak of 4,595 in the 2016-2017 admissions cycle. Yet, Cornelli shows little alarm over the dropoff. “We’ve looked at the data and a lot of the decline is in people we would not have admitted anyway,” she says.  “I have complete confidence that we have a great class this year.


“Everybody is talking about a decline in MBA applications but it’s a decline in only two-year programs. At Kellogg, we have the entire spectrum. We have the two-year program but we have the one-year and the triple MMM which is a special focus. We have a part-time and weekend MBA and the Executive MBA. If you take the one-year MBA and the weekend MBA, applications and even the number of people we’ve admitted have gone up in the past five years. The market changes and that’s okay. I can play different levers. I don’t have to force everyone into the same format.”

The new dean is a self-proclaimed optimist and cheerleader for Kellogg who exudes both passion and high energy. Cornelli’s blue eyes brighten as she describes what has most astonished her since becoming dean on Aug. 1. “The biggest surprise is how big and distinctive the culture is,” she says. I feel it is so much stronger than I thought. I am meeting alumni who graduated 30 years ago and 15 years ago and they are still closely connected with each other. The culture is incredibly strong and incredibly modern. It’s really in the DNA. It’s good that I love the culture because I wouldn’t be able to change it even if I wanted.”

The deeply-rooted strength of Kellogg’s I’ve-got-your-back culture has come alive in the stories Cornelli has heard on the road. In Mexico City, an alum recounted how he returned to his native country to launch a startup after spending his early career in the U.S. Kellogg alumni became his first clients, allowing his startup to takeoff. In Los Angeles, another alum recalled the time he needed a major loan to reposition his family’s business. He sought out a senior bank executive who was himself a Kellogg alum. The person immediately responded and smoothed the way for a significant loan. In Houston, yet another alum–15 years removed from Kellogg–was in the middle of a career transition that would lead to the purchase of a company. He sent the term sheet for the business to a finance professor at Kellogg who immediately advised him not to go forward with the deal’s terms for a number of cogent reasons.


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