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

Sabyasachi “Saby” Mitra is the new dean at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. He spent 27 years at Georgia Tech. Florida photo

Poets&Quants: You’ve spent the majority of your academic career, 27 years now, at Georgia Tech. What was your journey to becoming a professor at Georgia Tech, and did you expect to stay there as long as you have?

Saby Mitra: I grew up in a place called Calcutta, which is on the eastern side of India. And I went to school in the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, which is in the northern part of India. I did my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering there. My mom lives in Mumbai, which is on the western coast of India, and I tend to go back every year for a short visit, perhaps sometimes more than once.

I came (to Georgia Tech) in 1993 as an assistant professor; it was called the College of Management at that time. And right from the start I was always interested in the business of business schools. So even as an assistant professor, I started a program for corporations around creating IT leaders. And this was actually quite unusual because usually as an assistant professor you focus on your research, which I did, but I always wanted to have a deeper corporate connection.

So I started that program and then immediately after that I got tenure in 1999 — that’s when you get promoted to associate professor from assistant. I actually left for a year and joined a consulting company, and I was in D.C. for a little more than a year and then came back again to Georgia Tech and continued here from 2000 until this time. During that time I was faculty director for our executive MBA program for about six years. Then I was senior associate dean of programs for about four years in charge of all our degree and non-degree programs. That gave me a great opportunity to understand all the different aspects of the business school. And then I moved over as senior associate dean of faculty and research in July 2019, and I’m in charge of all their faculty and some staff as well.

So I sort of have a lot of administrative experience. On the teaching side, I teach a core MBA course required for all MBA students on information systems, or information technology. And that’s a course which changes all the time because the technology changes. I joke with our accounting colleagues that accounting hasn’t really changed since the 14th century, and of course that’s a joke; but if I use a case which is more than two years old, the students complain. So that keeps me the fairly occupied.

And then on the research side, I focus mainly on two areas, electronic commerce and information security, and I do mainly empirical work. So I’ve been associated with our top journal in the area, called Information Systems Research, as one of their associate editors and senior editors till a few years back. And since that time I’ve mainly focused on making sure that our students here get what they need to from our programs.

What about Florida really interested you? What’s the real appeal of moving south to the Warrington College?

I think Dean Kraft has done a fantastic job in 30 years in building the faculty, staff, endowment, and programs in the college. From the outside, I always knew that Warrington has fantastic and renowned faculty who are true experts in their discipline, with stellar research reputations among other business school academics. That’s easy to see from the outside. When I did my research, when I talked to them, and during my visits I was also actually quite amazed by the excellent and committed staff in the college.

Also, being in the flagship university of a very large and growing state, Warrington attracts very good students. And they also have very committed and supportive alumni. So they have all the elements of success, if you will. And I’ve also noticed that in the last few years they’ve done extremely well in all the different rankings — they’ve been on an upward trajectory as you correctly point out in one of your articles. They’ve done very, very well.

It’s all of these things put together — and further, they have a very large number of specialized master’s programs. A lot of people might think that distracts from the MBA. I think it actually adds to the MBA, because all of those courses can be made available to the MBA students if they have the background. And that gives them much more opportunity to really focus and hone in on an area. So because of all of these things, I felt that it was a place which really is on the rise and I would be very fortunate and happy to be part of that journey.

All business schools these days face some challenges, and among them is the ongoing decline in applications to full-time MBA programs. What does Florida need to do to continue to appeal to international applicants?

As it pertains to the declining number of applications to full-time MBA programs, my answer is not so much specific to Warrington because I don’t think they have seen any appreciable decline — and actually their applications and enrollment has gone up over the years. In any event their decline has not been as bad as some of their peer schools. And it’s mainly because of their rise in rankings and also because they have made a lot of investments in programmatic elements recently. So all of the other stuff was always there: The faculty, the staff, the different programs, all of that was there. But I think in recent years they’ve made a lot of programmatic investments, especially in career services, which have led to great career outcomes for students. And because of that they’ve improved in rankings, and because of that they haven’t faced declining apps and declining interest in the full-time MBA as other schools have seen.

But you’re absolutely right there is a significant downturn in applications and interest in MBA programs in general and full-time MBAs specifically. In the full-time MBA, I think there are many reasons for the declining applications and many responses that schools need to make. The first is, that there are many other viable options available today that do not require students to take two years away from work. There are the evening-and-weekend formats, and many current students are also more comfortable with the online format. The quality of online delivery is also improving significantly.

So students are making an economic calculation that factors in lost wages. All this is known, and many schools are providing scholarships to partially reduce the financial burden — specifically state schools that do not have adequate resources face a very difficult task in attracting students. At the same time, the full-time MBA is still the primary determinant of business school reputation, although that I think may change in the future. But certainly today, that’s how the reputation of the business school is determined.

So I think for the full-time MBA, schools will have to give a very compelling reason for students to be on campus, and those reasons will most likely not be coursework-related, which perhaps can be delivered online. It will more depend on experiential aspects of the program — things like the opportunities to do company projects or participate in leadership programs, career coaching, participation in faculty research, internships even during the semester with companies, networking opportunities, study-abroad programs. Those are the programmatic elements that I was talking about earlier.

I think they’ve done well there in the last few years in putting in more resources on those programmatic elements. But if there’s one thing that I would definitely like to continue, it is making more investments, and I think there is interest in the donor community to support that as well. And I think that’s something that most business schools will need to do, because you have to give them a compelling reason why they should be on campus rather than taking the courses online.

So what does that augur for full-time MBA programs?

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. 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.

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