After spending ten years as the fourth dean of Saїd Business School at the University of Oxford, Peter Tufano bid farewell to the school last week on June 30th. For an academic who had been so thoroughly invested in Harvard, he leaves behind an impressive list of accomplishments that have changed the course of the institution he has led.
Few would have been able to predict that he would move across the pond with such ease and impact. After all, his roots in upstate New York were hardly privileged. “The opportunities my parents had were different,” he explains. “My dad dropped out of school to run a farm in the middle of World War II. How do we go from relatively humble backgrounds to have an outsized impact on the world? It comes from faith. I do believe in social justice. I believe in using our talents in the world. It has never been a stretch to say, just because my parents haven’t been inside a college doesn’t mean that is how I was trained as a kid.”
Indeed. Tufano earned all of his Ivy League bona fides from Harvard, from his bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard College, to his MBA and then a PhD in business economics at Harvard Business School. At each step, the first-generation college graduate excelled, graduating summa cum laude with his BA, as a Baker Scholar in the top 5% of is HBS class, and finally as one of the dean’s doctoral fellows in the business school’s PhD program. He then spent 22 years as an HBS professor, including several in the top leadership ranks of the school as a senior associate dean.
‘IT WAS THE BEST TEN OF MY LIFE PROFESSIONALLY’
Leaving a place where he was so deeply invested for 33 years could not have been easy. Yet, over the past ten years at Oxford, Tufano has made a lasting mark. He hired 44 out of the 76 members of the faculty. Those professors have significantly increased the published research output of the school. Saïd’s rise in the Financial Times‘ research rankings tells part of that story, improving to 23rd in the world from 51st ten years ago. In fact, the school’s full-time MBA, its Executive MBA and executive education programs all improved in rank, with the full-the MBA achieving a 10-point rise to place 17th this year in the FT, up from 27.
The school’s annual MBA intake rose by a third to 320 students from 240. More importantly, student diversity improved drastically. Women now make up 47% of the incoming students, up from a mere 25%, one of the highest percentages of women in a full-time MBA program anywhere. Thanks to a unique African initiative, Tufano boosted the percentage of students from Africa to 13% of the incoming class from just 2%. He also helped to make Saïd an integral part of the greater Oxford community and created a unique 1+1 program allowing students to earn a master’s degree from selected Oxford University departments along with Saïd’s one-year MBA over two years. And he raised £104.5m ($144.2 million) in the process, an unusual achievement for a school in Europe where there is less of a philanthropic tradition for higher education than in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, in a reflective interview with Poets&Quants, Tufano looks back on the ten years with little regret. “It was the best ten years of my life, professionally,” says the 64-year-old Tufano. “I’m not just saying that. I had a wonderfull, wonderful time at HBS and at Harvard before that. But the last ten years have taught me how to be a leader and put into action many of the things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Big change requires some time. If you want really fast stuff, you are probably not talking about meaningful change. You have to have patience.”
‘IF YOU ARE COMING TO THIS PLACE, IT’S BEYOND GREED AND SELFISHNESS’
His departing message to future students? “This is a great program but it is a rigorous program and you’ve got to commit to it,” he maintains. “We are going to demand a lot out of you, and the reason we are going to demand a lot is because you can do it. Secondly, it’s your job to span out to the university and learn from your colleagues around this wonderful place, whether they are doctors, lawyers, or social scientists. It’s your job to go meet them. We will bring some of them in but it’s your job to meet them.
“And finally, if you are going to come here you are going to have to make the world a better place at some time. The issues of the world are way too big to assume that someone else will take care of them. If you are coming to this place, that is part of what you are buying into. It’s beyond greed. It’s beyond selfiishness. It’s about being selfless. I think that resonates with young people. Young people are looking for more than the next job and a paycheck. They are looking for a purpose. I have been looking for that my whole life.”
When Tufano became dean in 2011, Oxford’s business school was only 15 years old. “Sometimes we might assume the school was older and more developed,” he reflects. “It had three deans in that timeframe, and they had done great work but there was a lot left to be done. In the last ten years, I’m most proud of the fact that the way we talk about the school hasn’t changed in ten years. The question is, did I deliver?”
‘CAN WE MAKE THIS TRULY AN EXCELLENT PROGRAM?’
To become a part of the academic establishment at Oxford meant drinking lot of cups of tea, jokes Tufano. “I was not a tea drinker when I arrived at Oxford but I am now. I went around the university introducing myself and the business school and explaining our approach. Sometimes quickly and other times more slowly, people began to understand that we were here to stay and our mission was purposeful. We see business as a route to change in the world. These were not hard messages around the university. What they needed was a sense that we were serious about it.”
When he arrived at the oldest university in the English-speaking world from Boston, he asked himself a series of challenging questions. “Can we make this truly an excellent program? Now more than 15 years ago the answer is yes,” he says. “Is the business school more embedded and part of the university than it was ten years ago. The answer is an unqualified yes. And are we having impact? The answer yes.”
Those answers are not self-congratulatory. Besides the remaking of the faculty, the hiring of every single member of the senior leadership team and the increase in scholarly research output, Tufano worked hard and with result to make Saïd a crucial part of the university. That would be a challenge for almost any business school because B-schools often were isolated on the peripheral of most campuses. But at Oxford, a place steeped in tradition and ritual, even the idea of a professional school was not embraced by every member of the community.