A B-School With A Sustainability Mindset: The P&Q Interview Cornell Deans Gaur & Karolyi

Cornell Johnson’s Growth And Sustainability Mindset

Enrollment at Cornell Johnson College of Business has grown 20% over the last two years. Courtesy photo

If you’re looking for a headline for business education at Cornell University post-pandemic, perhaps it’s this: “SC Johnson College of Business Is A Growth Play.”

In the last two years, the student body has grown just shy of 20% across the college’s three schools: the undergraduate Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Part of that is organic growth where more students are enrolling in existing programs. Part of it is adding new programs that in turn attract new students. In 2022, a year when most of the top 25 MBA programs reported sizable declines in domestic applications, Cornell’s apps rose 20%.

“And of course, we are now aggressively growing our faculty to meet the expectations of that growth,” says Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight dean of Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business.

“Our faculty headcount is the largest it’s ever been as of this year. We just hired another 20 faculty members, and we will be hitting 216 full time equivalents delivering education to just shy of about 4,000 students across 20 degree programs.

“Two years ago, we were 193, so that’s a net add of 23. I don’t know of too many schools or colleges that have added as aggressively in this post pandemic phase.”


This month, amidst this period of growth, Cornell announced another, rather important faculty change: Vishal Gaur, a long time professor of operations, was named the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management, effective July 1.

Vishal Gaur

Gaur has built a distinguished career at Cornell since joining the faculty in 2007. As associate dean for MBA programs from 2014-2019, he led the MBA program through a curriculum review and revitalization process placing greater emphasis on collaboration, leadership, and analytical skills.

He also introduced two programs to equip students with cutting-edge skills in the field of data analytics. The first, Digital Technology Immersion, is designed for MBA and Master of Professional Studies students who want to develop coding, databases and advanced analytics skills. The second, Master of Science in Business Analytics, targets working professionals who want to enhance their expertise in data analytics tools to optimize business decisions. It is offered through eCornell, the university’s online education platform offering professional development and certificate programs.

“One thing that Cornell does really well is collaborating across different schools and colleges. That type of a culture exists in this university, and I think that is becoming more and more relevant to business education,” says Gaur, who earned his BTech in Computer Science and Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi before transitioning to business education.

“There is value in having connections across disciplines. Something that I really appreciate about Cornell is the ability to walk to another college, knock on somebody’s door, and work with them. So, that is something that we will continue to work on.”


Gaur earned his Ph.D. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. As the new dean of the graduate school, he will serve as a member of Karolyi’s College Leadership Team.

“I can’t believe how lucky we are to have Vishal Gaur join the leadership team in the college,” Karolyi tells Poets&Quants. “He is going to be a spectacular leader for the Johnson Graduate School of Management. Not just his administrative track record of success, but in all aspects of his professional life, he is absolutely the right person, in the right place, at the right time. I couldn’t be happier.”

P&Q recently sat down with both Gaur and Karolyi to talk about Cornell Johson’s new leadership in graduate business education along with the college’s growth, pervasive focus on sustainability, and the changing market of business education. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vishal, let’s start with your motivation behind stepping into leadership.

Vishal Gaur: I was the Associate Dean for our MBA program for five years,and during that time, we did a number of innovations which have continued, especially in bringing digital technology into the MBA curriculum and changing the direction of the MBA curriculum.

I also created a new program, the online part time program on business analytics for the pre MBA market. That was quite a revelation in terms of what role business education plays for people at different stages of their career path.

After having done these two things, and having been a researcher in business management for a long time, I felt really motivated to contribute more to business education than just through the classroom or through writing research papers. I think we at Cornell are at a very good spot at this time because of the work that we have done in these areas. I feel very excited for what we can accomplish, given the challenges and the opportunities that are there for business education today.

What are some specific lessons from creating that business analytics program that you think will be really helpful for you?

Vishal Gaur: One of the biggest revelations for us was how strong an online component to business education can be. There is generally a perception that online education cannot be as strong as in-person education, and I think there are good reasons for that perception. But we have created a really strong asset of high-quality courses in partnership with eCornell. What happened was that for difficult things, students would make use of the instantaneous feedback and practice a concept multiple times continuously until they grasped it. We felt that students were actually learning as much or more from online than from in person.

So I’m actually curious to see how we can combine that with the in-person education and deliver more to our MBA students who are always stressed for time and want to fit more priorities into the same amount of time.

What are your big-picture goals for your first tenure?

Vishal Gaur: We are in a very good place because of the investments we have made over time with Cornell Tech, with online education, and having been a forerunner in sustainability as well. So I think the biggest priority is to utilize these strengths and grow the quality of our programs so that they meet the evolving needs of our students. I would say that is the big one.

A second goal is to invest more in our programs. We now have a portfolio of programs that are at the pre MBA, the MBA and the Executive MBA level, and how exactly we do these things will evolve in discussions with our faculty and with colleagues in the college like Dean Karolyi. So, please stay tuned for more to come.

When you say “grow programs,” what are you talking about? Enrollments, number of programs offered, what?

Vishal Gaur: It is enrollment and providing better experiences to students. A program, once it is launched, requires constant nurturing so that students continue to derive value from it. I don’t think we want to increase the number of programs.

What is your assessment of the business education offerings at Cornell? What do you think sets you apart?

Andrew Karolyi: From a platform perspective, the college, spanning three schools, has 20 degree programs. Seven of them are MBAs or variants of MBAs, and those fall all under the auspices of Vishal as the new dean of the Johnson School.

2023 new year's resolutions

Andrew Karolyi

There’s also about 12 different professional master’s programs that are pre-experience or quasi pre-experience, so they’re meeting the demands of the marketplace wherever that marketplace is. I mean that in terms of the offerings – we have a Master’s of Science in Accounting and a specialized masters focused on real estate, for example – that meet the demands of the market in a timely way.

Of course, we also have not one but two undergraduate programs on our platform. And Vishal is right: We’re not instinctively looking to add another program, but that doesn’t mean we’re not open to that possibility. We know how to do it, and we can be quite agile.

Similarly, as we recently did by sunsetting our accelerated MBA program, we’re not averse to actually taking down a program. I know that’s very rare in the business school world out there. Everybody wants to add, but the fact is that we should be always thinking about meeting the demands of the marketplace, optimizing, being agile, as well.

Vishal Gaur: I think business education has become relevant for students at various stages of their career. So for example, when someone gets out of an undergraduate degree, and they are in an organization trying to solve business problems, they often need to learn specific business skills, and use data relevant to those skills to be productive and add value. Then there is the MBA and the post-MBA world.

So, depending on where business skills are relevant and how the world is changing with AI and the focus on ESG, etc., we need to keep working to make sure that our programs are delivering value.

Tell me more about the added faculty positions at the Johnson School.

Vishal Gaur: We’ve been strategic in the types of faculty we have added. For example, in operations management, we have added six faculty members who focus in areas related to machine learning and analytics, because there is a demand for new courses in that area.

Likewise, for us, sustainability is not just a silo, but pervades the various disciplines in business education. For instance, we have a faculty member who specializes in carbon accounting. Accounting is not just about dollars and cents, but it’s also about the amount of carbon that is being created in different stages of the supply chain. So it’s a strategic growth in specific directions needed.

Andrew Karolyi: We have a theme that was funded by the college in support of building a community of colleagues that see themselves doing research in the area of or related to sustainability across any discipline and across any of the three schools. Ninety of our 216 full-time equivalent faculty self identify as being affiliated with the business of sustainability.

I think one of our big signature distinctions as a college of business is how many of our colleagues see themselves dedicated to sustainability, dedicated to advancing their respective disciplines in sustainability, and it pervades their research as well.

Did this interest in sustainability grow organically, would you say, or was it more strategic?

Andrew Karolyi: When we launched the college seven years ago, we actually created a mission statement and a vision for ourselves. At the center of that is to develop an institution of higher learning that delivers future business leaders who think about, “the sustainable shared prosperity.” So, I think this didn’t happen by accident. This is actually sort of in the water and in the air around Cornell.

Vishal Gaur: From a programs point of view, we are a school that’s known for immersions and we have had an immersion in Sustainable Global Enterprises since 2005. Now, with new regulations coming in and with data becoming a useful tool for companies, it’s becoming easier for companies to act. For example, it’s easier for companies to do traceability studies throughout their entire organization, or for them to show to investors that they are indeed sustainable.

So, our focus on sustainability is a combination of three different things happening together: One is the sustainability mindset here. The second is analytics and technology as a tool. And the third is interest from business itself. And sustainability is one of the things that we focus on in our MBA education, and we’ll continue to do so.

Andrew Karolyi: A statistic I saw recently was that approximately 27% of publicly listed companies in the United States now have a chief sustainability officer, which means that they’ve got an organizational unit devoted to it. One of the facts is that many more would have them, but they clearly need to see the development of the leadership talent bench towards that end.

That’s what we’re seeking to serve: We want to train the future accountants, the future investment bankers, the future supply chain and procurement specialists, and all of these roles towards building the broad leadership bench across all aspects, but focused in support of this demand that’s out there in the marketplace.

Are these sustainability topics embedded in the core courses, or more taken as electives?

Vishal Gaur: There are two ways in which students engage with sustainability content. One, as I mentioned earlier, is our immersion in Sustainable Global Enterprise. Typically, close to 40 students take this immersion, and the beautiful thing is that they are not just MBA students, but also graduate students from other parts of Cornell. So you have an engineer, or a scientist, or a human resources person working together with MBAs to solve a practical problem. There are also other immersions that have sustainability modules as well. For example, I taught the operations immersion where carbon accounting and traceability were very important themes.

The second way for students to engage is through elective courses. Whether a faculty member teaches sustainability in their core course or not is largely driven by the interests of that faculty member and by the area. And I think those are some of the things that I will be working on in my term.

Andrew Karolyi: Two other things in relation to sustainability in the MBA world: One is something called the Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellows Program, which is also under the auspices of the Sustainable Global Enterprise. It’s sort of a second year fueling interest among the students. Many of them might have taken the immersion in the first year, but others from other immersions can actually do a sort of a specialization in the second year.

Another thing we just launched this year is the Green Technology Innovation Fellowship which is very much like what Vishal was talking about. It’s again in the second year, whereby we combine some business students into teams with graduate students in different colleges where they’re developing some kind of innovation that advances green technology and the energy transition. We’re recruiting for that program now.

A question we like to ask anytime we get a dean on the line: How would you assess the state of the MBA degree right now? Certainly there’s a lot more competition through online platforms, YouTube instructors, mini-MBA programs etc., for core business education lessons.

Vishal Gaur: I think all of these things that are happening are just fantastic because it shows the richness and the depth of the MBA education. It supports what I was saying about the value of business education at different stages of one’s career, and it shows that the business education market is in a growth stage. I view this as a parallel to what happened in the 1970s and 1980s when the Wall Street revolution and the use of data and capital asset pricing models, etc., really brought about a tremendous transformation in the value of the MBA.

I don’t think these platforms diminish the value of a two-year MBA because that is a different kind of experience. The purpose of a two-year MBA is for someone who has already established themselves in a career path and they now want to switch to making more relevant and more leadership oriented decisions in different industries. They need to go through a two-year curriculum where, in the first year, they prepare themselves with the basics, and then they try out those basics in their internships. Then, they come back in the second year to reflect on what they have learned and what more they need to learn. We see the change that takes place in our students over the two years, and it’s a tremendous transformation.

The MBA is what gives someone a transformative experience towards becoming a business leader. Decision making is becoming more important than at any other time in the past. There are so many challenges in the world, and today’s MBAs are better equipped to solve those challenges than they ever were.

Just a few days back, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how AI is affecting white collar jobs. There is only one job that does not show a declining trend and actually shows a strong growth trajectory, and that is management jobs. The need for MBAs to take more ownership of decisions and know what technologies are out there is just higher.

Andrew Karolyi: What your examples are actually showing is there are some elements of what we do that are ripe for disruption. What I love about Cornell and the way we all think here is that we are always ready to pivot and adjust our delivery. A beautiful example is Vishal’s stewardship and launch of this MS of Business Analytics.We’re meeting the demands of the market because we’re going to them with this hybrid delivery mode.

Vishal Gaur: We also have a series of certificates in collaboration with eCornell that are focused on the same kind of market as the mini-MBA.

Are you exploring the stackability of certificates and other content that can lead to degrees?

Andrew Karolyi: We are very much thinking about it. We’ve got an incredible treasure trove of these asynchronous assets through eCornell. I’m going guess that 40% of the assets at eCornell at the university level are affiliated with one of our three schools at the College of Business – the Johnson School and the Nolan School of Hotel Administration in particular are very strong players.They are very much thinking about how certificates can lead and dovetail into degree programs, particularly these hybrid degree programs.

Vishal Gaur: I think the need for an MBA education or business education in general is only growing. But what has also happened is that it is becoming harder for students to take two years off their work life. That is something that we all need to think about: How do we make it easier for them to extract the value that they need within the commitment they’re able to make.

What are some other trends in the MBA or other business education programs that you are watching and excited about? What are the opportunities?

Vishal Gaur: I think the main ones are about sustainability, and about the increasing use of AI and machine learning, etc. Even the industry mix in which our students go into is evolving. So for us, investment banking, consulting, and tech are the strongest industries. Tech is facing some short term pressures, but I feel that they are short term and they will go back to where they were.

We are in a good position to be able to capitalize on these trends because of what we have been doing. For example, our partnership with Cornell Tech delivers a 1+1 MBA program where a student spends the first year in Ithaca, they do their summer internship, and they spend the second year at Cornell Tech. It is just an amazing way of providing value to students in a very innovative fashion.


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