If ever there was a difficult time to be a global business school, this has to be it. Besides the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic that has wrecked the global economy, there is the rise of more nationalist governments and trade restrictions that have, in some way, turned back the clock on globalization.
But Alice Guilhon, the visionary dean of SKEMA Business School with seven far-flung campuses in five countries around the world, believes these are temporary setbacks. The globalization genie, she says, has escaped the bottle and there is no putting her back. Despite the current health crisis, Guilhon plans to open three more campuses in India, Russia and Australia over the next ten years.
“Of course, the risks have increased for us,” she says from her office in the south of France in Nice. “But the risks are higher for other schools and universities as well. To tell you the truth, I am not sure that it will change things. We can’t reverse globalization. This is the way of the world. We can’t change that radically because for me it would be the end of the story. It means we have to change our processes, our attitudes but we can’t change completely the model.”
A SPRAWLING BUSINESS EDUCATION EMPIRE WITH MORE THAN 50 DIFFERENT PROGRAMS
Guilhon oversees a sprawling business education empire with campuses in France, Brazil, China, South Africa, and the U.S. and more than 50 different programs, ranging from undergraduate business degrees to several specialty master’s programs and a global executive MBA. All told, the school boasts more than 8,500 students, welcoming 120 different nationalities in any given year.
Managing that empire during an unprecedented health crisis has been a massive challenge just as it has been for many business school deans. But for Guilhon, it is complicated by the multiple locations and the size of the student population. After the temporary closure of its Suzhou campus in China in mid-January, SKEMA went virtual with online classes for its 550 students there. But with the announcement of the closure of universities in France, then successively in the U.S., Brazil and South Africa, SKEMA switched to a “100% remote teaching mode” for nearly 70 different programs, running 250 different courses each day.
“We’ve closed campuses and given our students the choice to stay in place or go back,” says Guilhon. In South Africa today, we have six students who don’t want to go back to Europe. They said they will take the risk and prefer to stay. We did the same in China more than two months ago, closing our campus there.”
THE SIZE AND SCOPE OF THE SCHOOL IS THE DIRECT RESULT OF GUILHON’S AMBITIOUS PLANS
Guilhon has also launched an emergency fund to help students facing temporary difficulties due to the pandemic. Some students lost their internship allowances or their work-study contracts, while some parents, who have been laid off from their jobs, can no longer support the daily expenses of their children. So she is organizing a €250,000. fund that will hand out grants of between €1,000 to €3,000 per student.
The size and scope of the school is the direct result of Guilhon’s ambitious plans. Last year, in 2019, SKEMA celebrated the tenth anniversary of a merger between two French schools in late 2009, ESC Lille and CERAM, Nice. With the merger, engineered by Guilhon who was then dean of CERAM, she has had the opportunity to reimagine business education. Guilhon opened her U.S. campus in Raleigh, N.C., in January of 2011. A year later, another campus launched in Paris in La Défense. Two years later came Suzhou, China, in April of 2014. followed by the Belo Horizonte campus in Brazil 17 months later.
Ten years ago, the school had 60 faculty members and 2,000 students. And, Guilhon quickly adds, a “governance structure that was completely frozen.” Now there are nearly 9,000 students on seven campuses, with 150 permanent faculty and more than 400 full-time equivalent adjuncts. The school’s annual budget totals €104 million ($112 million), from less than €40 million ten years ago.
‘I DON’T WANT ACADEMICS WHO SAY YOU ARE GOING TOO FAST, YOU CAN’T DO THIS OR YOU CAN’T OPEN THAT’
The school’s governance, moreover, is largely in the hands of alumni who are presidents and CEOs of international companies. Even though Guilhon if a fourth-generation academic, she clearly had little patience for a bureaucratic board of overseers. “I don’t want to have academics who say you are going too fast, you can’t do this, or you can’t open that,” she says plainly. When she laid out her ambition plans for expansion, Guilhon recalls, saying, “This is the project. Now if you want to come with me, we will do something exceptional. And if you don’t want to, we will be dead in the next three or four years. So now you have to choose. 100% they were with me. There was no resistance to change.”
“This is a dream I’ve had,” she says. “I had the chance to draw the school of my dreams on a white piece of paper ten years ago along with the governance of the school. This is just exceptional in one life to have this opportunity, and I took it as something very important for me but for the community. This is proof that we can change the model. We can change the rules of the game and prove that you can continue to be excellent and recruit the best faculty and students and change the rules besides. This is for me something that is very exciting. If we can open the door for others to transform societies through education, this is something that gives me great satisfaction.”
Colleagues describe her as highly entrepreneurial, full of non-stop energy, a whirlwind of ideas. “Alice’s enthusiasm and her direction is contagious,” says Gisa Rollin, the development director of the U.S. campus in Raleigh, N.C. “We work very closely together and the energy that you can feel and see is what we see and feel on a daily basis.”