After Unprecedented Turnaround, Thunderbird Soars Again

Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram, second from right, going over plans for the school’s new headquarters. The new building opened in 2021. (Courtesy photo)


After being introduced to alumni and faculty on April 8, 2018, Khagram officially took over as dean that July. There were two things he had to do almost immediately.

First, he needed to shore up Thunderbird’s budget that was, by that time, nearly $10 million in the hole.  Within his first three months, Thunderbird underwent a massive reorganization, letting go of a third of its staff–from about 120 people down to 80. His team also evaluated every single degree program against the school’s global, digital, and technological-focused mission. It culled some programs, reinvented others. 

Faculty and staff who stayed had to buy into the new vision. Professor of Global Leadership Christine Pearson, who has been at Thunderbird for 18 years, noticed a clear change in the vision coming from Thunderbird’s new dean.

“The early days of ASU’s acquisition featured many leadership blunders. The first positive change was the arrival of Dean Khagram,” she tells Poets&Quants. “He held a faculty meeting before he was even on payroll. His energy, savvy, and personal fit for Thunderbird were evident in that first meeting. He was clearly a force of positive change.”

Next, Khagram had to reunify the T-bird alumni. He traveled to 62 countries in his first 18 months to meet, face-to-face, with alumni and other partners turned off by the school’s decline and infighting. 

Heather Wise (Thunderbird ‘94) is co-chair of the Thunderbird Global Alumni Network. Her Thunderbird degree allowed her to work around the world in electronic data systems for the banking industry. (Photo Credit: Thunderbird School of Global Management)

In those meetings, Khagram had a lot of tough conversations. 

For example, Sabic, a large Saudi Arabia chemical manufacturing company that had once been a large Thunderbird client in executive education, told Khagram they were meeting him out of respect. However, they said, they would never work with Thunderbird again. 

Today, Thunderbird is the single largest provider for Sabic’s executive education, Khagram says. 

Another tough one: Khagram recalls a conversation with alum Francis Najafi (Thunderbird ‘77). Najafi loved Thunderbird. He thought Khagram was the right man to turn it around, but he was never giving another cent to the school. 

Early this year, the school announced it was naming its new global headquarters for Najafi and his wife after a $25 million gift–the largest donation Thunderbird has received since joining ASU. 

“He traveled the world, talking to people, sharing the vision, where we were going, and the plan to get there. And then he executed on that plan,” says Heather Wise, (Thunderbird ‘94), co-chair of the Thunderbird Global Alumni Network. “It has been so exciting to see so many people engaged, making large donations, and contributing again. Sanjeev loves to say we are not just surviving, we’re thriving. The energy is there and people are so excited to come back.”


Business folk like a good metric, something by which to measure success or failure. So, let’s take a look at the numbers behind Thunderbird’s turnaround.

Thunderbird fact sheet provided by the school.

  • Its budget went from nearly $10 million in the hole when Khagram joined in 2018 to $35 million to the good today, the dean says.
  • Total enrollment is up 122%, rising from 675 students in 2018 to more than 1,500 now.
  • Thunderbird went from 3 Regional Centers for Excellence to 20. They are located around the world, in cities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Jakarta, Seoul, London, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Nairobi.
  • It has already raised $80 million in gifts from newly engaged alumni, including 1,000 new donors. It expects that number to hit $100 million by summer. Alumni are three times more engaged.
  • Graduate internship rates are up from 50% to 95% while graduate employment rates are up 90% six months after earning their degrees.  Average starting salaries are up 36.4%.
  • The dual language requirement returned for its core Master’s degree, a point of pride for Thunderbird alumni, and the school opened the first ever AR/VR Digital Language Lab.

Thunderbird has also launched or transformed 10 new programs, including four STEM-certified programs and the world’s first ever graduate degree in space business, policy and leadership which launched in January. It offered degrees in select school locations, such as an Executive Master of Arts in Global Affairs in Washington, D.C., and an Executive Master’s in Global Leadership and Strategy in six cities around the world. Its Master of Global Management–the predecessor of Thunderbird’s historic flagship degree absorbed by the school’s ill-fated, full-time Global MBA–was ranked No. 1 by the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education in 2019. 

Tomas Bilbao

After cutting staff by a third when Khagram first arrived, Thunderbird has since taken great care to attract exceptional people inspired by what Khagram and the school are trying to achieve. They’re now up to 240 faculty and staff, up from 80 right after the restructuring. 

“The dean inspired and recruited a group of people who identified with him and his vision,” says Tomas Bilbao, executive director of branding and communications at Thunderbird. 

Bilbao is one of those recruits. He came to Phoenix in 2018 after 20 years in Washington, D.C., working on democratic issues. 

“I was very concerned about the state of the world and the state of democracy. The reason my wife left the White House and I left my job to move to Arizona was because we knew that education is the best protection against populism,” he tells P&Q. “We also know that with all the challenges facing the world, we need to create a new brand of leader who can help preserve the international order. The dean, thanks to his vision, has positioned the school to actually make an impact at a global scale, from here in downtown Phoenix.”

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