1-On-1 With Oxford Saïd Dean Peter Tufano

Peter Tufano, dean of Oxford University’s Said Business School

P&Q: The MBA, as a degree, has traditionally been seen as less accepted in Europe, less valued. I’d love to get your thoughts on how that’s changed, or has that changed? Will it change? What do you think is the future of the degree in Europe?

Peter Tufano: To think about the future of the degree, it’s useful to think about the history of the degree. I’ve just written a paper. It’s going to get published soon and I’ll share it with you. I’m a history buff and this is a paper about what business schools looked like and what they did during World War II. If you go back, in World War II business schools were all young, white men. They had a format that pretty much all of them followed. You saw, in the wake of the war, more differentiation and stuff like that. The MBA, as a degree, has never been a static thing. If you take it back a hundred years, the popular courses were railroading and retailing. I’m not making that up. You can look at the curricula in places like Harvard Business School a century ago. And those were the hot areas. That was tech.

These degrees have always changed. What they haven’t changed so much about over the years is formats, like two years. They haven’t changed so much about delivery modes. But if you look at what’s happening inside the content, well, there’s a course that says Finance and another course that says Accounting. Those courses have changed dramatically. At a different point in my career, I actually took out some of the original case books from 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago. For example, the question about where you would list your company was a question in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s still a question today. Some questions are timeless, or in the research that I do, functional. But then we have to update them.

Right now, let’s go back to business education. Is there a need for business education? Absolutely. I don’t know anybody that’s come out of any experience that they’ve had and they’re fully formed in terms of knowing most of the things they know. Will there still be inflection points for, let’s call them youngish adults, and for a set of later executives? Yeah, I think so. Will those stay close to a two-year format or a one-year format, that’s all in-person? No, that’s going to change. Will the content change? Yeah, of course. What we’ve tried to do at the Saïd School is to acknowledge that, especially the leaders that we’re trying to build, they have to understand not only individuals and teams and organizations, but they have to understand systems, not only to adapt to those systems but to change them. I think curricula have to change. I think that’s healthy to the extent that curricula do change and that formats change, then you’ll attract a different set of people.

I sit on the GMAC board, as you may or may not know. I’m going to cite some statistics from GMAC. I think last year was the first year that we saw a greater interest by internationals in non-U.S. schools over U.S. schools. Last year was the first year that it was either parity or slightly more interest in one-year programs over two-year programs. I think these are not unnatural or unhealthy trends. Since we study how it is that markets evolve over time and how competition works, it’s not a surprise that we, too, are going to face changing demands and changing supply and changing competition. I think that’s a healthy thing. It will make management education evolve and improve over time. The idea that it’s going to look the same for my students as it did for me when I got an MBA in 1984, I’d like to think we’ve made some progress in those many years.

P&Q: Talking of format and delivery, there’s a strong view that this pandemic that we’re all in is accelerating changes there. What are your thoughts on that? What’s it been like to be a dean of a business school amid a pandemic?

Peter Tufano: I’ll answer the latter, then I’ll go to the former. It has been the most invigorating period that I’ve been through as a dean. My staff has done amazing work. On the day before lockdown, I chaired a faculty meeting. It was a meeting on Zoom, although we were in our hive, which is a room that’s specially designed for remote teaching. I asked my faculty a really simple question. And the question was, “Would you do whatever it takes?” And they said, “Yes.” Then they did it.

Let me tell you how we’ve actually delivered our program this fall. The faculty redesigned every single thing that they taught. Our format was that we had sections of four streams of 80. They were 24-hour modules in terms of 24 hours of contact time, all in class. We transformed that. Instead of having four streams of 80, we have 16 streams of 20. There’s a combination of synchronous and asynchronous material. The students are in these very small, intimate learning groups with their faculty. What’s happened is that we’ve taken all of the lecturing elements and we’ve stuck those largely in the asynchronous part. Then the really valuable time that the students have with the faculty is all discussion-based. Both the faculty and the students really, really, really enjoy that.

It’s been supplemented with things that even a few months ago, we hadn’t anticipated. All the courses are going at one time, getting together on a Friday with all the students and just having an open discussion about what’s going on in the world and how that relates to their courses or all sorts of innovation that we hadn’t even planned. I’m an innovation guy. That’s what I do. I founded a nonprofit some years ago. When I was an MBA, I founded a firm that failed. As my staff will tell you, I come up with more ideas than people with common sense would have. But the amount of innovation that my faculty and my staff have demonstrated has been just really amazing. I’m super proud of what they’ve done.

So to answer your question, I think my faculty and my students have both learned that they have muscles that they didn’t have before. Those are digital muscles. I would be shocked if they determined that they didn’t want to use those muscles now that they know they have them. But exactly what format that will take, we’re actually beginning a discussion tomorrow at a faculty meeting and that discussion will take place over the coming months: What does the program look like post-Covid? One of the courses that the students will have when they return is a thing I’ve mentioned twice. This is Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford, or GOTO. It’s all about, how do we rebuild? And in the same way, we’re thinking about rebuilding health systems, rebuilding climate systems, rebuilding economic systems for economic justice.

We’re asking the same question internally: What do we want to build into? Not build back, but build forward? We’re going to ask the same question inside the school that we’re asking outside the school. I think the students have had a good time and I think the faculty have had a good time. And if I can summarize it in the simplest way, everybody’s gone back to being a teacher again.

P&Q: Are you going to go back to being a teacher again?

Peter Tufano: I don’t know. Right now, as of July 1, I’m on sabbatical. I can tell you this: on sabbatical I’m going to do all the thinking and writing that I haven’t had a chance to do in a while. And I’m going to think about what the next things are. I’ve been working on three or four research projects and they’ll get done this winter. There’s a whole bunch more that I’m hoping to get started on in the fall.

I guess the statement that I’ve made publicly, and it’s a true statement, is that I want to figure out the best place to be useful and the best way to be useful. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m an innovator. But I strongly believe in social progress and social justice. I had done that before I came to Oxford and I suspect I’ll continue to do that. I’ve got to figure out the right way to do that. But for the short term, I’m proud to be a faculty member of the University of Oxford, or I will be as of July 1.

P&Q: So a return to the classroom is certainly on the table, certainly a possibility.

Peter Tufano: I love teaching. In fact, I’m going to teach in January, this GOTO course that I’ve mentioned now a few times. We deliver it in a way that has large group stuff, but also small tutorials. I just got my tutorial assignment today. So I’m going to be face-to-face or maybe Zoom-to-Zoom with a set of students starting in January, as I have for the last nine years.