Over the last quarter-century, John Quelch has been a business school dean on three continents, first with London Business School, then CEIBS in Shanghai, and most recently with the University of Miami’s Herbert Business School. Far preceding and interspersed with these appointments has been Quelch’s extensive professorial experience, beginning with his first faculty job at Harvard Business School in 1979, and a professor, senior associate dean, department co-chair, and more at other points since.
Quelch’s list of titles, awards, articles, and achievements is longer than your arm. So when he is asked about the long-term survival of the traditional MBA program — the two-year, full-time, residential MBA decried in some circles as a dinosaur — he brings valuable perspective to the discussion.
To wit: It’s an old question, and the MBA has survived many who first asked it.
“When I arrived at London Business School, I remember being asked this question repeatedly because INSEAD, the main competitor to London Business School, and IMD both had one-year MBA programs,” Quelch tells Poets&Quants from his office in Miami during a recent interview. “The notion was that London Business School was somehow exploiting students by charging them two years for what someone else could actually deliver in one year.
“My response to that was, ‘A one-year MBA program is what an institution offers that does not have a sufficient body of interesting and inspiring faculty to offer a two-year program.’ When that was quoted in The Financial Times, I received a telephone call from the dean of INSEAD. The fact that I can remember it today obviously, indicates the tenor of the call.”
RISING TO THE OCCASION
John Quelch became dean of Miami Herbert in 2017. He will step down from that role at the end of 2022 after five and a half years.
In many ways no one could have expected, and in some Quelch himself definitely did (read on to learn how), it has been a momentous term. Amid the upheaval of a worldwide pandemic and other crises, Miami quietly moved up the undergraduate business school ranks and into the conversation among the leading MBA programs in the U.S. As a research school, Miami Herbert moved into the top 50 in North America according to the annual ranking published by the University of Texas-Dallas, and 70th globally according to The Financial Times. Located in a region with a large and vibrant Latino population, the Herbert School is positioned for prominence amid historic demographic shifts in the United States. And as business schools everywhere integrate sustainability into every facet of their programming, Miami Herbert proudly stands as the only U.S. B-school to currently offer a STEM-certified master’s in sustainable business — a degree launched under the leadership of the school’s dean four years ago, in his first year in the job.
For John Quelch, a sabbatical looms — followed by, he hopes, a return to the MBA classroom. Already he has exceeded his term by half a year — but he says it wouldn’t have had it any other way, since that allowed him to remain with the school as it found its footing post-Covid.
Now, he says, he is leaving Miami Herbert in excellent shape to tackle the challenges ahead.
“I think it would be, of course, dereliction of duty to leave in the middle of a crisis,” says Quelch, 71, who is also the Leonard M. Miller university professor and Miami’s vice provost for executive education.
“I think it’s fair to say we rose to the occasion. One of the important characteristics of leadership is, of course, not to panic in a crisis, but to provide a sense of calm and confidence to the community. As with many other schools, our faculty perhaps surprised themselves by their own resilience, and agility, and ability to adapt to hybrid and online delivery.”
WHY THE TRADITIONAL MBA WILL SURVIVE
Returning to the ever-present —and irresistibly conjectural — question of whether the full-time MBA has enough inherent value to persist in a world with countless alternatives, Quelch is optimistic about its chances.
“If someone has done a BA or a BS in Finance and they want to be on Wall Street, and they know that they want to do a finance major in the MBA program, maybe a one-year program is good enough for them. I think that anyone who aspires to being in general management has to have the multifunctional exposure and the opportunity to reflect on how all of these functions integrate with each other to drive business decision making. It’s very difficult for an ordinary MBA student to achieve that level of understanding in the space of 10 months.
“In this fast-changing world, there are many individual students who are perhaps not sure of which direction they want to go at the end of their degree program. Or alternatively, they enter believing they’re going to be on Wall Street, but they discover something called marketing, which they’d never been exposed to before, and fall in love with that and become the CEO of Procter & Gamble instead. Those transitions, those self-awareness-type reflections — it’s very difficult for that to happen in a 10-month or one-year MBA when the recruiter is knocking at the door 10 minutes after you’ve registered for the program.”
Q&A WITH JOHN QUELCH, DEAN OF MIAMI HERBERT BUSINESS SCHOOL
Poets&Quants: When you step down at the end of December, you’re going to take a well-earned sabbatical. Then what?
John Quelch: As you know, I’ve been dean of three business schools on three continents. Cumulatively I’ve served 10 years as dean, and my inclination at this point is probably not to take on another such assignment unless something came along that was super interesting and perhaps involved institution building in an emerging economy, for example. I really enjoyed the time I spent in China because it was a very young institution, relatively speaking, and there was an opportunity to shape the future of the institution in a way that if you are the dean of Harvard or Northwestern, it’s a wonderful position, but you don’t have so much flexibility to see the results of your work as you do when you’ve got a young institution that is up and coming.
Was that what appealed to you about Herbert?
It’s a good question because a lot of people have congratulated me on being ahead of the curve coming down here in 2017. Actually, I totally understood the demographic shift in the United States and that this was, in my view, an institution that could be lifted — elevated — in terms of stature and recognition, fairly quickly. And fortunately, as was the case when I went to London during the time of the Tony Blair administration and also the Hu Jintao administration in China, these were moments in history when the tailwinds for free market capitalism were very strong. Likewise, in Miami with the demographic shift, but then also the wealth shift on top of that, the tailwinds have been very favorable and that no doubt has been helpful to us in terms of moving the brand.
When you talk about demographic shift as it relates to Herbert, what are you talking about exactly?
I’m talking about the overall national demographic shift — population shift to the south. In other words, Florida, Texas, in particular, and the relative growth of the Hispanic population as a percentage of the total U.S. population.
What do you think that portends for, not just Herbert, but graduate business education in the United States? Do you have any thoughts on the larger scene?
Well, in terms of that particular shift, of course, we are well-positioned given that diversity typically includes Hispanic Americans as an underrepresented minority. But of course, in the geography in which we are located, that is far from the case. Accordingly, our ability to offer a diverse student population is simply advantaged by the ethnic distribution in the South Florida area.