Over the past 33 years, Rod Garcia has reviewed tens of thousands of MBA applications to MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rendering admit and deny verdicts for three decades of MBA cohorts. In fact, 14,000 students have been admitted during Garcia’s tenure.
Those judgments will come to an end with the announcement that Garcia will retire from his role as Sloan’s assistant dean of admissions at the end of the month, just before the first class he admitted to MIT Sloan celebrates its 30th reunion year. It is a job that has allowed Garcia, a smart, personable and down-to-earth gatekeeper, to oversee the overall operations of the school’s MBA Admissions Office, including the recruitment, selection and enrollment of MBA students.
When Garcia first stepped into an admissions coordinator position at Sloan in 1988, Ronald Reagan was still president, Beetlejuice and A Fish Called Wanda were playing in movie theaters and George Michael’s Faith was one of the big hits of the year. The renowned economist Lester Thurow had just completed his first year as dean of the Sloan School, the annual MBA tuition was all of $15,900, the starting MBA salary for a Sloanie was $60,860, and Businessweek magazine debuted the first of the regularly published rankings of the best MBA programs (Sloan’s MBA program was then ranked 15th best). For the current academic year, the annual tuition now comes to a hefty $77,168 a year, while the median salary for last year’s MBA grads was $140,000, with a $30,000 signing bonus.
GARCIA TOLD ONE APPLICANT THAT 90% OF THE SCHOOL’S SEATS FOR THIS YEAR’S ENTERING COHORT WERE FILLED IN R1
The one constant has been Garcia himself. As one alum, former IBMer Dan Greenberg, puts it in an endorsement on LinkedIn, “Rod Garcia has been a fixture in MIT Sloan’s admissions process for some time. His fun-loving and relaxed spirit pervades the admissions process and helps create class after class of fantastic Sloan graduates. Sloan would, simply, not be the same without Rod.”
He’s leaving at a time when MIT Sloan is in good shape, though the admissions team under him endured a social media thrashing in the middle of the pandemic last year. Garcia didn’t duck the controversy, quickly responding to it with a town hall. Yet, the school’s reputation is world renown. In the 2020-2021 Poets&Quants‘s composite ranking, Sloan now boasts the sixth best MBA program in the U.S. Businessweek‘s last ranking put the program in seventh place, a major leap from 15th when he joined the school. And applications to Sloan’s program have exploded during the pandemic. Garcia recently told one applicant that 90% of the school’s MBA seats for this fall were filled in round one, partly a consequence of deferrals during the pandemic.
Asked for an interview by Poets&Quants, Garcia–who has often kept a low profile–gracefully declined. “I’m afraid I will decline to participate in the story,” he wrote back in an email. “I want to slip away quietly from the scene and not look back, so I can begin the process of rediscovering myself.”
GOING FROM PAPER SCORES AND INDEX CARDS TO COMPUTERS
After 33 years in one place–he doesn’t acknowledge any other jobs on his LinkedIn profile–rediscovery may be a challenge. Coming to interview for the job 33 years ago from the University of Chicago, where Garcia got his start in admissions, was an eye-opener for him. “When I interviewed here in 1988, I knew nothing about MIT or MIT Sloan,” he once admitted in an interview. “I knew nothing about Boston. But when I came to interview – and I spent only about two or three hours in the admissions office – there was something there that happened that made me feel that this was the right place for me. It was not the facilities, it was the not building, but it was something. I don’t know what the secret sauce is – I wish I could bottle it. But it changed my view of MIT and my view of Boston, and I really wanted the job so much more than before I came for the interview.”
Garcia’s first day on the job in the fall of 1988 was registration day. “I remember my first day being very busy,” he recalls in an interview with MIT Sloan’s communications department. “No one was really able to pay attention to me because there was so much to do. Harriet Barnett, who retired a few years ago, introduced me to a few people and showed me to my office amid the craziness of that day.”
His first big project was to digitize an application process that had been based entirely on paper. “I inherited all of these files from my predecessor—the late Miriam Sherburne, who retired from MIT Sloan after 51 years—including stacks of paper GMAT scores and index cards I didn’t really know what to do with,” says Garcia. “And that’s when it struck me that MIT was this mythical place that’s all about innovative technologies, but here I am going into my office and seeing all of these GMATs dating back five years.”
According to the MIT article, Garcia worked to reduce paper whenever and wherever he could. Candidates who did not want to submit paper applications were even permitted to mail them in on a floppy disk. But it was not until the mid-1990s, when several student participants in what was then the MIT $10K Entrepreneurial Competition approached the admissions office with their idea for an online application, that Garcia was able to fully realize his dream of going digital.
WHEN SLOAN INTRODUCED ONLINE APPLICATIONS, ONLY ONE OR TWO CANDIDATES TOOK ADVANTAGE
“The first year we made online applications an option, we only had one or two applicants who took it,” he remembers. “But in 1997 we decided to require all candidates to submit their applications online. It was a bold decision, it was untested, but we had faith in the technology. Sure, there were problems—the server crashed over the weekend and no one was monitoring it—but we learned from those mistakes and we adapted. We innovated.”
It was Garcia who also oversaw the development of recruiting events to cultivate prospective MBA candidates. He had a built-in advantage in bringing aboard international students because of the school’s reputation abroad and its special allure to Asians, particularly Japanese students who held MIT in high esteem. When he arrived at Sloan, for example, 35% of the MBA students were international compared to just 16% at Harvard Business School and 19% at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“He excelled in his position and so did the rest of his team,” according to the MIT article, “but many of the alumni whose student experiences were shepherded by Garcia fondly remember a fun-loving and relaxed spirit whose professionalism and empathy made their time at MIT Sloan unique.”
‘ROD HAS BUILT DEEP FRIENDSHIPS WITH MANY ALUMNI’
Garcia attributes the school’s draw to its culture and reputation. “I think that’s really due to the culture of MIT Sloan. It’s one of the first things I noticed when I came here from another institution,” adds Garcia. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of being a small school. Whether you are a student or an administrator, you have the chance to really get to know everyone. You can build these relationships that will last long after graduation.”
In his characteristic humble way, Garcia credits his predecessor and the admissions office for developing such an empowering environment for the candidates and students they work with. “When I mention Miriam to Sloanies who graduated before 1988, their faces light up. She was often the first person they interacted with and their love for her persists to this day. If I could do half of what she accomplished during her time here, I would be happy.”
He has, of course. “Rod has built deep friendships with many in the alumni community and I know those will continue even after his retirement,” says Jake Cohen (Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Master’s Programs). “Like so many in our community, I have experienced Rod as a devoted colleague, thoughtful contributor, and loyal friend, and I look forward to maintaining that friendship for many years to come.”
Garcia leaves behind a stable team in admissions. Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions Dawna Levenson, a former Accenture partner and MIT alum, who has been on Sloan’s adcom team for the past nine years. Pam Spencer, an associate director of admissions, has been with Sloan for 17 years.