The P&Q Interview: Carnegie Mellon Tepper Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou On AI

Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

The very first time Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou knowingly used artificial intelligence was on a long road trip with one of her daughters. As they traveled across the U.S. from city to city, the dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business tapped into ChatGPT.

Early after its release to the public in late 2022, Bajeux-Besnainou and her daughter began to ask the program to compose poems on the history of the cities they passed through. “It was just so much fun,” she recalls. But what she most remembers is the remarkable quality of the prose it spat out.

Since then, Dean Bajeux has led something of a revolution at the Tepper School in embracing AI and its implications for business and society. Building on the school’s history as a pioneer in management science, the French born and mathematics-trained dean is encouraging faculty to research the application of artificial intelligence in every discipline. Students are being taught the advantages and the limits of the technology.

The focus on AI neatly dovetails into her new branding for the school under the rubric “The Intelligent Future: Data Informed, Human Driven”. In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants Founder & Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne, Bajeux-Besnainou recalls her first days as Tepper dean in the middle of the pandemic, the rise of AI and how it factors into the future of management education and her belief that this is a long-lasting, revolutionary change with widespread implications across business and society. The transcript of our interview was edited for clarity.

John A. Byrne: Isabelle, you joined Tepper as dean in October of 2020, arriving after serving as dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. The pandemic was raging then and it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to walk into the Tepper Quad for the first time, masked and alone in this abandoned, beautiful building. What was it like?

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou: Former Dean Bob Damon just threw me the keys to my office. We were both masked. It’s a fantastic building we’re in. But honestly, the building was very eerie. You could hear your footsteps echo through the building. There was really nobody or very few people there. We still had some courses in person, but most of the courses were hybrid on Zoom. It was really not what the building was built for and what the university is about, which is a lot of connecting and networking among the students. I’m so happy that we’re out of that, and that everything is back to normal, and that we have this very high energy, loud building that we all enjoy so much.

Byrne: While it may have been difficult to start your deanship during the pandemic, you used the time to think deeply about the school and its future direction. It’s clear to me that you essentially doubled down on Tepper’s origins as a pioneer in management science with a strategy build on what you call ‘The Intelligent Future.’ Tell us a little bit about that initiative.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, so that was a fantastic project to start with as a new dean in a new school. As you know we invented management science here at Tepper, and we also have a very strong culture of interdisciplinary work in the University. We look at problems in a very holistic way, and really apply different disciplines to try to find solutions. So the great project that I undertook right away was to create a branding for the school. We had to capture our essence in very few words. It was in retrospect, the best project to start with because we needed to interview lots of stakeholders. We needed to find exactly what is the most important part of what we are and we came up with the Intelligent Future. First of all, it’s a French word, and then there’s also the balance between artificial and human intelligence. What the tagline is really trying to express is that we want to be informed by data. We want to apply the AI tools to find better solutions. But we want to do that in a very human-driven way.

Byrne: What I found most interesting is that many regard science and technology as cold. You warmed our notion of it by making clear that people are in the driving seat. It’s people who will make science and technology meaningful and useful to others.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Absolutely. That’s something that is incredibly important. And you know, people are scared of AI. A lot of people are scared of AI which I completely understand because people are afraid of losing their jobs to new technology. But we need to make sure that we embrace it in the way that it’s going to be beneficial to society. And that’s something that we already are working on in preparing students for their future roles as ethical business leaders. We want them to think about technology in a responsible way.

Byrne: In your case, you didn’t have to re-engineer the school and make a steep turn because of Tepper’s long-standing foundation in management science. You have an instinctive advantage in leveraging your existing resources toward this AI initiative.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, thanks so much for saying that. I think we’re a natural in the space, and that’s a huge advantage because what’s most difficult in any university is to change the culture. Two things are embedded in our DNA: the fact that we are leveraging technology and AI data; and the second thing is what I mentioned earlier, which is our interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. These are things that are really difficult to build when you don’t have that already embedded in the culture of the place.

Byrne: True, and you arrived at a time when the school was well positioned to truly take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of where business education is going because you had this beautiful new building smack in the center of campus, willing to embrace the other colleges and departments at Carnegie Mellon.

Bajeux-Besnainou: My life is very easy. It is the perfect place. It is the perfect positioning for the school, and the one thing I think was missing is that we didn’t let the world know about it. So the branding was absolutely essential because we didn’t have to change the culture of the place to get the right positioning. It’s there, but the branding was missing in making sure that we could actually attract the best faculty and the best students to the school.

Byrne: For many of us artificial intelligence has been in the background, almost invisible for quite a few years and in the form of a Netflix recommendation engine or an answer to a query posed to Siri or Alexa. However, the first more apparent use was with ChatGPT. And I wonder if you can recall the first time you opened that application and used it yourself, and what your conclusions were.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, I love it. I leverage it as much as I can. And honestly, it takes me less time to write emails now, because I can write without thinking about the grammar too much. It’s just an enhancement of what you can do, and leveraging your time in particular, which is probably the most precious good that we all have. So the first time I opened ChatGPT was very early on when I was actually on a road trip with one of my daughters. We were crossing lots of different cities in the U.S. and just asking ChatGPT to write poems about the history of each city so we could learn more about these places. It was quite a long road trip, and it was a lot of fun to do that.

Byrne: Were you surprised by its immediate utility?

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, in a way. I was also surprised about how good it is. A year ago, I was at the AACSB Deans Conference and I started a session with a poem that was written by ChatGPT on the future of business courses. And while you don’t expect anything new from ChatGPT, you have a lot of the components that everybody would write if they’re thinking about it for 10 minutes. Obviously, we want to do something a little bit more innovative, and that doesn’t come from a ChatGPT response. But it’s still pretty good, and that’s quite amazing to me. And I love poems, as you can tell.

Byrne: How do you put AI in the curriculum? How do you embed it in traditional courses and create new elective courses in the field? And how do you steer faculty toward research in this area? My sense is that you’re doing all of that all at once. Am I right?

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, it’s just so exciting that we cannot help ourselves from doing everything at once. Very often in these changes, it’s more of the junior faculty teaching the senior faculty about how to leverage technology. We’re seeing that here again with the AI tools that can be used in the classroom in particular. On the research side, we can certainly have research initiatives. But of course, the faculty are completely free to do research in whatever is exciting for them at the time. In a very natural way, a lot of our faculty here at Tepper are embracing this theme right now. But there’s also a lot of amazing innovation that is happening in the classrooms. So it’s not only about introducing new courses on AI specifically, which we do, but it’s also about the courses that are already being taught and how to leverage AI very early on in the fall of 2022. So when ChatGPT was very new, some of our professors were already using it in their final exams. They asked students, for example, to prompt ChatGPT for an answer and then to evaluate the quality of that response. How would you improve it? I think that’s a very cool way to think about it.

Byrne: Right. Can you talk a little bit about some of the other examples of how you’re embedding AI into some of the core courses?

Bajeux-Besnainou: A good example is one from Professor Anita Woolley course on organizational behavior last semester. She trained an AI to create personas so that the students would actually work on job interviews with these different personas. They had to hire the right person for the job based on AI personas for the job that was posted. So students began using these tools to give them some experience on interview skills which is an important skill to have when you’re becoming a business leader.

Byrne: That’s a very good example. And then you’ve also been developing a portfolio of elective courses on AI, one of which examines the ethical implications of the technology.

Bajeux-Besnainou: That’s correct. We do teach ethics in the core of our MBA program here at Tepper because we believe that’s incredibly important. There are different ways to tackle that. Either you create individual courses on ethics or sustainability or entrepreneurship, or you embed those topics everywhere. We are trying to do both. We’re trying to teach ethics, but also to embed ethics in existing courses in the different business disciplines. Whenever we’re talking about AI, the ethical considerations of the technology are incredibly important. We all know about the biases that are generated in AI because they reproduce what they know. And it’s more with AI getting to a common denominator. So if there are biases in society, it’s going to pop up right away in AI. That’s why we need the human aspect always. Hopefully, humans can have better values than current data.

Byrne: Having recently read the Elon Musk biography, it was interesting to gain his views on how AI can be quite a dangerous technology that could some someday control humans. It seems so far-fetched, something out of a science fiction movie, that it’s hard to grasp or believe. I tend to be a more positive person anyway, and I’m sure that you are as well. But I wonder if there are things about AI that you worry about.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yes, of course. Whether we worry about it or not, it’s happening. So that’s the first fact. It is happening and addressing some of the concerns with AI is incredibly important. That’s why we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that it’s happening. And then we need to make sure that we know what the pitfalls are that we need to avoid. There are a lot of very worrisome things. You know AI can be used to build weapons and I’m not even talking about traditional weapons but biological weapons. AI can be leveraged in lots of ways and these are incredibly worrisome things. But again, we need to address it in a very intentional way by recognizing what the tensions are.

Byrne: Now you have a background that would make you a natural researcher in this field, having your doctorate in mathematics. You did apply it to finance, but I would imagine that if you were a professor today you would have the time to do research. So what aspect of AI would you pursue?

Bajeux-Besnainou: Oh, that’s such an interesting question. I’m a professor of finance so I would think that I would be mostly interested in the financial applications of AI and that’s a very big topic. And there are concerns there as well, like everywhere. But that would be the area that I would probably want to tackle.

Byrne: I would think that one of the more sinister uses of AI is the manipulation of financial markets and probably even more sophisticated modeling for arbitrage opportunities in the market. No doubt, I’m sure we will see some hedge funds starting to employ AI technology to gain trading and investment advantages.

Bajeux-Besnainou: Yeah. This is an area where AI can be so much faster than humans. Quantum computing is another one that is going to disrupt financial markets in a very large way as well. So you know, when you’re thinking about disruptive factors right now, AI is one of them. It might not be the biggest one. I think quantum computing might be bigger and very soon we may be able to break any code so rapidly that it’s going to be scary for the security of transactions.

Byrne: Where else can you go in your AI initiative?

Bajeux-Besnainou: The one piece that is important to me is that as a business school. we don’t want to be an ivory tower. We want to be relevant to business and society. We want to build partnerships with companies for both capstone projects for students but also faculty research. So we have this new Center for Intelligent Business, and we’re working with corporate partners to identify the new business problems that are framed by data. The world is becoming incredibly rich in data and that can be tackled thanks to AI. This is absolutely essential in the strategy of the school.

Byrne: From the student perspective. I’m wondering if you have found that students are keenly interested in this. Or do you have to lead them to it?

Bajeux-Besnainou: I think students are ahead of the curve on this. ChatGPT has been an instant hit right for billions of people now but in particular for students. And it’s not only in college or graduate schools, it’s also in high school. Students have understood the advantages of leveraging the technology. Sometimes not in the best way, and sometimes in the best way. So I think what’s important to do with students is to make sure that we’re teaching them how to leverage the technology to enhance what they’re doing, but not to replace them in what they’re doing. So, for example, when we teach coding at Carnegie Mellon in the first introductory course, they cannot use ChatGPT.

But when we teach it here in the business school, the professors are asking the students to leverage the technology if they don’t know how to code. You’re going to get some code from the tool, and you won’t have any idea on how to improve that, because it’s not going to be very good. It’s not going to be perfect. So the first step is to learn how to code, to be able to leverage the technology later on. And that’s where we need to convince students that there is this first step, which is that you need to learn how to read, you need to learn how to count, and then you can use the AI tool to do that better and faster.

Byrne: Over the years there have been many ideas in business and in management that have been adopted and used to train students at business schools. Looking at AI and all of its implications and challenges do you think this is now essential to teach? Or is this something that may be a fad?

Bajeux-Besnainou: I can only say that I think it’s essential. I don’t think it’s going away. It might not be as important as we think it is, but it is still essential. And you know, as we said earlier, we’re incredibly well positioned in that market but it doesn’t mean that we should be the only business school doing it. And obviously, we’re not. But I would agree that it’s essential right now for every single business school to make sure that the students are becoming literate in this technology.

Byrne: I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you very much for your time and your insights.


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