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Exclusive: 1-On-1 With Florida Warrington’s New Dean

Saby Mitra takes over as dean of the Florida Warrington College of Business, which includes the Hough Graduate School of Business, on August 1. alligator.org

Sabyasachi “Saby” Mitra is set to take on his first deanship this summer. As you might expect of someone who has spent nearly three decades in graduate business education, he’s ready to hit the ground running.

Mitra, senior associate dean of faculty and research and Thomas R. Williams-Wells Fargo professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology Scheller College of Business, has been named dean of the University of Florida Warrington College of Business. After 27 years at the Scheller College — during which, at one point, he was in charge of all degree and non-degree programs — Mitra will become Florida Warrington’s first new dean in 30 years, beginning his tenure August 1.

He’s well aware that he will take over a school on the rise in most of the major rankings.

“I believe I’m walking into a very good situation,” Mitra tells Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview. “It’s on an upward trajectory. All the elements are there. So job one for me is to initially spend a lot of time listening to faculty, students, staff, alumni. I do believe that collaborative decisions take longer, but they are more sustainable.

“And then we will get to work.”

2 AREAS OF FOCUS FOR THE NEW DEAN

Hough Hall at the Warrington College of Business. Warrington photo

Mitra succeeds John Kraft, who became dean at Warrington in 1990. During Kraft’s long tenure he grew Warrington’s graduate offerings at the Hough Graduate School of Business from four to 26 and increased Warrington’s endowment to more than $227 million from $14 million. Perhaps just as importantly, Kraft bolstered the college’s global presence through study-abroad partnerships with more than 20 countries.

Kraft’s years of work paid off: His successor joins a school whose full-time MBA program at the Hough School improved in four of the six major rankings last year — in some cases dramatically. Florida’s MBA jumped six spots in the 2019-2020 Poets&Quants ranking, up to 41st, but its climb was even more impressive in the biggest ranking of them all: U.S. News‘. Florida landed in the top 25 on the U.S. News list last year, from 34th to 25th, a major coup. (In the new ranking out this month, the school slipped a few spots to 28th.) Simultaneously, the school found itself rising in the Bloomberg Businessweek and Financial Times rankings, too; in its Global MBA ranking, FT ranked the Hough MBA 19th in the U.S. and first overall in the Value for Money category.

Yet the forces buffeting MBA programs everywhere did not spare Florida. Even as it climbed into rarefied company in the rankings, the Hough MBA’s acceptance rate rose from below 15% in 2017 to an estimated 24% last year. Average GMAT scores, meanwhile, slipped over the last three cycles. These are symptoms of a larger problem, Mitra says.

“At MBA programs in general and not just the full-time MBA, there is still a stagnant and perhaps declining interest in MBA programs, although in the full-time MBA the decline has been much more dramatic,” Mitra says of MBA programs in the U.S. “To me, an MBA is still a no-brainer in the long run, but prospective students may not always see it that way. And many employers, some in the coveted technology industries, may not see an MBA as a necessary qualification. It’s not really like an MD, which is required to practice medicine. You don’t need an MBA to be in business.

“So we have to provide a real compelling value proposition to draw students in. And I think there are two areas that we can focus on.

“Declining interest to me really means that we need to change the product, and that gives business schools the opportunity to innovate. From the curriculum standpoint, there is a real need in business schools to refresh the curriculum, with greater emphasis on technology and analytics. And I’m not really talking about tech-lite or analytics-lite courses — although some of that may be necessary to bring people up to speed — but technology or analytics contextualized to domains such as finance, accounting, marketing, etc.

“And then the other thing that we have to think about in business schools is, many students come to MBA programs to transform their careers. And we have to think carefully about how we can have that transformational impact, whether it’s the full-time, evening, or executive MBA programs. How can we give them experiences that develop their leadership skills? How can we provide entrepreneurship opportunities? How can we improve their communication and other soft skills? How can we make them ethical leaders? And a lot of it will, as I mentioned earlier, come from curricular elements but also from non-curricular elements in the program.”

AS VIRUS RAGES, A GREATER ROLE FOR DISTANCE LEARNING

Mitra takes over a Hough School with 470 students across all graduate programs, including 95 in the full-time MBA. The undergraduate population at the Warrington College is about 5,000. But the most popular program awaiting Mitra’s leadership is the Hough School’s online MBA, a top-five program in the latest U.S. News ranking, landing fourth overall for the second straight year. Hough’s online MBA is also top 10 in the newly released FT online MBA ranking, placing sixth, same as the previous year. It has about 500 current students, with an acceptance rate of 47% and an average Graduate Management Admission Test score of 579. Students have an average of 6 1/2 years of work experience.

As popular and successful as it is, Florida’s online MBA may be about to assume even greater prominence, as the world of graduate business education contends with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with a greater emphasis on distance learning.

“It’s hard to predict at this stage whether coronavirus is still going to be here in the fall or not,” Mitra says. “But at least right now my expectation would be that it’s not really the long-term but the short- and mid-term that we are more worried about.

“In the short-term, of course, we’ve seen all the study-abroad programs where we do residencies in different countries, all of those are being canceled — we have just canceled ours at Georgia Tech. And the other impact that we are seeing is on corporate programs. We do a lot of corporate programs at Georgia Tech, where companies send their managers and executives to campus for one or two weeks, and we have had several cancellations of those because they don’t want to travel. So that is going to have an immediate revenue impact on the business school, which has impact of course on all programs, faculty — everything. That is the short-term issue that we are dealing with and that I imagine Warrington is dealing with also.

“In the mid-term, I think there is some uncertainty that our foreign students — especially from China and South Korea, which are quite a significant number at most universities — can make it here in fall. There are two questions here: Will the whole thing be over by then so that they can actually come here physically in the fall, but also can they complete their degrees in their home countries on time? I would imagine there is some fear — and for Warrington it would be more on the MS side — whether they can actually make it here in fall. And that’s where distance learning may play a greater role.”

See the next pages for Poets&Quants‘ Q&A with Saby Mitra, which has been edited for length and clarity. 

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