An economic recession and severe application downturn were only the opening acts of the turbulent era during which Luke Anthony Peña served as executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business. Then coronavirus hit. Yet as Peña prepares to leave the Tuck School this month after just three years, he leaves behind a B-school with as strong an incoming MBA class in key metrics as any in recent history — and one that also makes history with the proportion of women enrolled.
In a move announced to the school community last Friday (August 28), Peña will leave this month to return to his alma mater, Stanford University, where he will take over admissions for the world’s largest graduate scholars program. His last day at Tuck is September 18.
“There is no other business school community like Tuck,” Peña tells Poets&Quants. “I have a deep affection for the people here, most of all my truly remarkable and resilient Admissions and Financial Aid colleagues. “Only an opportunity to build a multidisciplinary cohort could pull me away from Tuck. I will continue to be a champion for Tuck’s mission and Tuck’s people who live that mission.”
LOOKING FOR ‘NICE’ STUDENTS
Peña came to Tuck from Stanford Graduate School of Business, from which he earned his MBA in 2012 before becoming its director of MBA admissions. He served in that capacity for five years until joining Tuck in the summer of 2017. When he returns to Stanford he will assume the admissions director’s role at the Knight Hennessy Scholars program, the largest fully endowed graduate fellowship with founding gifts totaling more than $750 million. Each year as many as 100 students across Stanford’s graduate programs receive full funding through the program, including tuition and on-campus room and board.
Peña will be taking over from his previous boss at Stanford’s business school, Derrick Bolton, who held the Knight Hennessy role for four years until rejoining the GSB as the new associate dean for external relations in mid-June.
When he joined Tuck more than three years ago, the school had a long-held reputation for being the most transparent and applicant-friendly admissions team among all prominent business schools (see Most Transparent MBA Admissions: Tuck, HBS, Ross & Fuqua). Peña immediately changed the school’s admissions paradigm. By the close of his first admissions season, the school was making headlines with a new approach, particularly its focus on four key attributes: Tuck students, Peña and the school posited, are “Smart,” a nod to academic achievement and strong test scores; they are “Accomplished,” something revealed in their resumes; they are “Aware,” ambitious, and purposeful; and they are “nice” — though that last quality, after gaining much attention, has since been amended to “Encouraging,” along with collaborative and empathetic.
In the year after Pena joined Tuck, however, the school’s admissions office found itself eclipsed by two other schools in an annual survey of applicants by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC). Instead of being recognized by applicants as the school that got to know its MBA candidates best in the admissions process, Tuck slipped to third behind Cornell and UVA Darden.
Applications to Tuck’s MBA program plunged in 2018-2019, falling 22.5% to 2,032, their lowest level in recent memory. The decline, among the most severe for a prominent business school last year, sent the school’s acceptance rate soaring to 34.5% from 23.3% only a year earlier. The drop occurred after Tuck fell in U.S. News‘ MBA ranking from 8th to 10th last year and further to 12th earlier this year. Without divulging the numbers for the admissions season just ended, Peña says apps were up overall, but the acceptance rate for this fall’s cohort is very similar to last year’s, suggesting that the school’s application volume has not fully recovered. That stands in contrast to Columbia Business School, which just reported an 18.6% rise in MBA applications to a new record, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School, which saw applications to its full-time MBA program jump by 25%.
CONSIDERING THE HEADWINDS, TUCK’S CLASS OF 2022 IS IMPRESSIVE
Earlier this year, Peña decided to do away with a long-time Tuck admissions practice of offering applicants a sit-down interview without the need to pass an initial application hurdle. The decision puzzled many because that open interview policy was instrumental in gaining Tuck a reputation for knowing its MBA applicants better than any other business school. Not surprisingly, the move backfired, causing Peña to reverse course–at least somewhat. The school ended up guaranteeing applicants who complete an application by Sept. 1 an opportunity to interview.
In key metrics, however — and considering the headwinds facing all of graduate business education — Dartmouth Tuck’s MBA Class of 2022 of 289 is impressive. Not only is the school’s international population up to 37%, with representatives from a school-record 47 countries, but its U.S. minorities are at 32%. Tuck admissions under Peña clearly set about to increase opportunities and tap new talent pools, as the school’s percentage of GRE-submitting admits grew to 39% from 15% in just two years, and the lower end of the GMAT range of admits this year dipped below 600, to 590.
But the biggest news this fall is that Tuck set a mark all of its elite peers will find tough to match, enrolling 49% women — a school record and 2 percentage points better than any top-25 school last year. Tuck enrolled 42% women in its MBA Class of 2021 last year, well behind Stanford and Wharton’s 47% each and also trailing Michigan Ross (45%) and Harvard, Northwestern Kellogg, and Duke Fuqua (43% each).
“Achieving our mission of educating tomorrow’s wise, decisive leaders begins by attracting not only the best and brightest students, but those for whom our mission is deeply resonant,” Sally Jaeger, associate dean of the Tuck MBA program, wrote in an August 28 email to students, faculty, and staff announcing Peña’s departure. “Since arriving to Tuck in 2017, Luke … has refined our school’s admissions processes and criteria, built a strong and high-performing team of admissions and financial aid professionals, and led the recruitment, selection, and enrollment of three record-setting Tuck classes.”
PARTING WORDS FOR A COURAGEOUS MBA CLASS
Upon Peña’s departure, Amy Mitson and Pat Harrison will serve as interim co-executive directors of admissions, roles they have filled before, having between them more than 36 years of experience stewarding admissions for the Tuck School. Mitson currently serves as Tuck’s director of admissions, recruitment, and marketing; Harrison is the school’s director of admissions, evaluation, and yield.
In an interview just last week to talk about Dartmouth Tuck’s latest MBA class, Peña sounded almost wistful in praising the students who had enrolled this fall, braving the unknown of a semester made chaotic by a coronavirus.
“I’m thrilled and delighted and excited by this class,” Peña said. “These are historic times and this is an unforgettable class that has chosen to proceed with their investment in business school and their investment in the Tuck School, even amidst these circumstances. So I have just incredible fondness and pride and affinity for this group of students that has the courage to move forward and to place their trust and faith in each other and in us.
“I am proud of every class enrolled at the Tuck School, but there will never be another class that enrolled under circumstances quite like this. And so I am just incredibly proud and excited by this class that’s coming up.”