Peter Tufano Leaves An Impressive Record At Oxford Saïd

Oxford, United kingdom, 08 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell


Tufano is clearly proud of that accomplishment which he calls “embeddedness.” “The important thing,” notes Tufano, “was to deliver what our students and alumni expected which is to have a truly Oxford experience.” That means delivering learning through intimate seminars and tutorials, and the fancy dinners dubbed formal hall that bring students together from the different Oxford colleges. He also helped to boost joint appointments for faculty with the school of economics, humanities and other disciplines.

And yet, he acknowledges that, leaving “a great business school would be a hollow achievement.” So he made sure that the business school would tackle the big challenges of the world. Among other things, the school views entrepreneurship as a force for good and justice. “We have tried to stay true to the promise of that,” he says.

One of his truly unique initiatives was the decision to actively recruit students from Africa, both a bet on that continent’s future importance to the global economy and the school’s role in developing a new generation of leaders there. “Some of it is math and future gazing and some of it is the mission of the school,” says Tufano. “I have been on the GMAC board for some time and they have good data on where the pool of MBA applicants come from. Every dean says they are investing in a generation of leaders. Looking at the numbers the idea that only 1.7% or 1.9% percent of the future leaders in the world will be Africans can’t describe what will go on in the next 25 years. There is a disconnect between what we say and what we do.


“The second part of the African initiative is mission-related, addressing the biggest challenges of the world. Some of the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges will be in Africa. If you say you care about the future of the world, how are you ignoring a billion people on the planet? Third, early in my deanship, I had the luxury of spending some time with Africans on the continent. I saw an amazing place with challenges but also opportunities. China and India are big and important places but they are single countries which means that a single government’s policies can shut them off. Africa is 54 countries so there are all kinds of nuance. Going along with that billion people, it’s going to move from a natural resource base to something else. Why wouldn’t you put massive bets on it?”

Tufano and his team analyzed the continent’s potential to come up with an estimated target for what percentage of the class should come from Africa.  “Right now, it should be 16% if based on population share.  We were at 2% and everyone was at 2% or worse. Like most other things, we just got to work and within a year we were at 10%. We hit it in 2015. The first thing we did was to send a message that we actually wanted to see African candidates because a lot of people self-select. We wanted to send an affirmative message. But applying to the school is difficult. GMAT exams are only offered in a few countries.”

So Tufano went to the CEO of GMAC and lobbied for more testing centers and then paid for test prep for applicants from Africa so they could put their best foot forward. “Rather than this be a 12-month sales process, it became a two- to three-year sales process. And then we had to raise some scholarship funds. My wife and I personally write a scholarship for students from Africa. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. This is coming out of my wallet directly to support a student. Having a large fraction from Africa also means that the rest of our class knows more about Africa. When a group is a small fraction of a population it becomes a token. The tipping point was about 10% and then it becomes impossible to ignore that group.”


The past year, of course, brought new challenges–and new lessons–due to the pandemic. “I think we have done a great job in reacting to the crisis,” he says. “We moved online really fast. Our staff worked from home. We’ve done weekly town halls. But I want to focus on the great work of the faculty. Many colleagues at other schools asked, ‘How can I maintain everything but try to do it hybrid and keep as much constant as I could?’ We went in a very different direction. We asked if this is an opportunity to rethink what we have done. So we broke up the class and did face-to-face teaching in 16 streams of 20 students each. It helped us become much more intimate with our students. We also began to deliver asynchronous content. We said we would experiment with that and come back and decide what we would do next year. Next year’s MBA format will look much more like the COVID format. We will stay in smaller groups, have some content delivered asynchronously. And then we will do additional tutorials. That delivery method is the model we are going to have next year. I don’t think we could have gotten there without COVID.”

Pre-COVID class sizes of 80 students, he says, are a thing of the past. While 20 student classes would be hard to sustain, Tufano expects future classes to number no more than roughly half the earlier levels. “The faculty did it themselves. The tradition of teaching at Oxford is the tutorial method. We have been the exception at Oxford. Many of my colleagues who have long histories at Oxford appreciated that it would be great if we could deliver a more intimate teaching experience. When we had the conversation about teaching in groups of 20 and doing face to face, it was not a complicated conversation. What my colleagues found was they like the small groups. They would uniformly prefer the small group. In deciding on next year’s structure, we put that to a faculty and student committee and unanimously came up with the same answer. That produced a better outcome for the students and the faculty. It was and is more work for the faculty. We are extraordinarily grateful for having the faculty step up.

“There is something about large mega shocks to the system. We tried to adjust in a large way. I am proud of the fact that we turned our executive education facilities over to the homeless which was not a trivial decision. We have been professing such high-minded ideals about how we are going to play in the world and we stepped up and did it. We created a program to support small businesses in the U.K. by creating LIBER and the Oxford Saïd Service Corps. We did demonstrate that this commitment to the agenda wasn’t PR; this is what we were about.”


What will he miss? “I will fondly remember the people,” he says, “my faculty, students, alumni and board, traveling the world flying the banner of Oxford. I have the best house in the world. I also have had those glorious magical dinners at Oxford. I will miss putting on my tuxedo one or two nights a week, dinners at Balliol,  breakfast with my students. I will miss the architecture of Oxford. I love this place. The light shines off Cotswold stone. The magic is real.”

Ten years from now, what all Oxford’s business school look like? “Three years from now we will open up the new home for executive education on the Thames. We’d have raised the last bit of money to tie the knot on that project so construction will start soon. The faculty will be little bit larger. We will be seen as a more integral part of the university. Ten years from now I hope a sense of purpose will continue to guide and illuminate the school. It will seem less avant-garde. I hope we will be at the forefront of the work around sustainability. I am extraordinarily bullish about the future of Said Business School. I don’t think it will be a huge school . It has never been about numbers or scale or rankings. Rankings unduly put weight on high salaries and that has never been our strategy. It has been about impact, not salaries.

For now, Tufano is off to Sicily to spend time with family and to think about his future research projects as a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School and a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“I was really fortunate,” he says. “My father never finished high school. I am a classic first generation college grad and have gotten lucky beyond anyone’s dreams. I see that it is my duty to do everything in my power to make things a little bit better for somebody else. I was able to do that at Harvard, to create Doorways to Dreams (now and in my work in Washington. Leading an institution like Oxford allows you to have a platform to influence the world. I will miss that incredibly.”

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