Dean’s Q&A: Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou Of McGill’s Desautels School

The Desautels Faculty of Management. Photo courtesy of McGill University

Jumping back to the strategic plan you worked on with the alumni from McKinsey, you mentioned setting up some immediate priorities. What are those priorities?

That’s right, so, we articulated the plans in four big strategic priorities. We started with student-centered, research excellence, community building, and financial sustainability. These are the four big themes, in terms of priorities, and of course, there are a lot of priorities underneath these themes.

In terms of student-centered, we are working a lot in establishing some experiential learning for the students. A very good example of experiential learning is a program we call Honors and Investment Management, where the students actually manage an investment company. We did set up an investment company, which is quite different from what other universities are doing. It’s not money that has been donated to the endowment — it’s money that is being invested into this investment company that is managed by students. So, it does bring a very different dimension to their experience of managing the money, because there are other issues they have to manage like compliance issues. They work with a professor and the professor is placing the trades.

We used this model to create a new master’s in finance — a brand new program that started last summer. I did launch that right away. This investment company has a third fund that is managed by the master’s students now. This is a model I want to replicate in a lot of different areas.

We’re also developing business analytics. The idea is to provide experiential learning for the students. So, having the students work on the real problems brought to them by companies.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you transitioning to this job?

One of the things we’ve been working on is recruiting professors, which is always a challenge. I came in with 15 additional professor positions. So, a very high level of recruiting. And that’s a challenge due to the Canadian dollar being very weak right now. When professors convert their salaries into American dollars, we’re not competitive and we need to explain to them that they will be living in Canada and spending Canadian dollars and that’s the way they should look at things.

We have very high standards and last year we recruited seven new professors and this year we plan on nine. Some of them are leaving for various reasons like retirement or not getting tenure. But, that’s been a challenge I’ve had to manage.

Another challenge is the reporting structure among the faculty. I don’t know if it’s a challenge, but something I feel is very normal that when someone comes in, they have their own style. And that’s something I’ve worked on.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions Americans have of Canadian business schools?

I’ve been finding, personally, that Canadian schools, in general, are very much between European and American schools. Some of the things look like Europe. And some of the things look more like the States. I’m trying to think about it as the best of two worlds. There is a very strong connection in Canada with England, clearly. But also in Quebec, a connection with France.

Do you have any specific examples of what that looks like?

One of the things that is very unique at the McGill and the business school is this approach of integrated management. This is something I know a lot of the deans are trying to do in the U.S., but the silos are hard to break, in general. Here, there are no departments. We have areas, but no departments. And that is helping in breaking out the silos. Is that something that is similar to French business schools? I don’t think so, actually. That’s not necessarily something that is European.

The students who are coming from Quebec graduate in three years instead of four years. That is something more similar to European schools, where undergraduate studies are three years, master’s studies are two years, and then doctorate studies. So, the reason in Quebec is because of CÉGEP (French acronym for Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel), which is between high school and university and students all go to CÉGEP before they come to McGill. Because of that, the programs are a little more prescribed than they would be in the U.S. In the U.S., because it’s four years of university, there is a little more flexibility for students to do more outside of the business school. In a way, they’ve (Canadian students) done that before, by having a more general education before coming to university. So, when they choose their major in university and they come to business school, they are very much set on business — a little more than the American students — and more like the European students would be.

In Europe, you go to a business school, that’s all you do — study business. And McGill is kind of in between. Students still have the ability to minor outside of the Faculty of Management in anything they want — in chemistry, philosophy, or any other subject — but a little less than in the U.S. In that way, I would describe it as in between Europe and the U.S.

What are you noticing in trends of where McGill business students want to work? Any industries or companies stand out?

If I’m thinking of undergraduate students, they are very typical to American students and I think European students as well. We have about a third of them studying finance and going to the finance industry. And then we have a lot going to consulting. Then, it’s marketing and all of the other standard areas.

We do have a lot of students interested in entrepreneurship and we’re developing a lot in that area. We have an entrepreneurship center within the Faculty of Management that is serving the whole university. That’s something that is very, very important to us and is that we want to build on this trend for the whole university and not be siloed. We do have students coming from engineering, for example, and they come to our entrepreneurship center and meet business students to build a startup. Or we have medical doctors who are coming to the entrepreneurship center and find an engineer to work on their device and then getting on a team with another business student.

So, that’s the type of collaboration that we want to see and foster as much as possible.

What sets McGill apart from other Canadian schools and schools located in the American Northeast?

We had a big announcement last week that we’re going to create a new school of retail management. We had a gift from Mr. Aldo Bensadoun, who is the founder of Aldo shoes, which is in more than 100 countries. We just announced on Friday that he is giving McGill University $25 million to create a new school of retail management. And he announced he wants this gift to be a catalyst to more gifts coming from the retail industry.

This is an area that represented very well the philosophy of integrated management and building on the strengths of other areas in the university. In particular, there is a huge research project at McGill right now — of more than $90 million — on neuroscience. McGill is well known for neuroscience. And there is a lot of link in terms of consumer decisions with the retail industry. So, we want to use those links to study, for example, and research how consumers make decisions. An example would be how do you make healthy decisions when ordering food versus non-healthy decisions. And how can we trigger the healthier decisions? We do have our professors working with neuroscientists to try to understand all of these aspects.

Another big area where there is a huge investment in research in Montreal is artificial intelligence. There is more than $100 million coming to Montreal — to different universities in Montreal. And obviously, artificial intelligence is very important now in retail management. That is something that we really want to work on.

Where exactly is that artificial intelligence money going and how does it involve McGill?

The artificial intelligence money is coming mainly to the University of Montreal. But, McGill is a very big part of the project as well with people in neuroscience and the computer science department.

Montreal is a city with four very big universities. It’s the second largest city in North America in terms of student population. It’s 250,000 students, right after Boston. So, there is a lot of cooperation done between the different universities. University of Montreal is the French speaking university and McGill is obviously English speaking.

That’s one of the things we want to do with this new school of retail management. We will create a space called Retail Laboratory where industry partners will come and work with researchers and students on defining what will be the tools of the retail industry of tomorrow. So, the intent is really to be the place for the retail industry to come and for the future leaders to be educated.

What are some other things we should expect to come from McGill and the Faculty of Management in the next year or two?

We’re renovating a building. It’s something exciting for us. A lot of business schools are doing that, but we’re going to have a second building that we’re renovating right now. It will be a building for MBA and master’s students. That’s a building that is right behind our current building. The two buildings will be connected. It used to be the McGill bookstore but now the McGill bookstore is essentially online. So, we took over the building and we are creating space for classrooms and study space. We’re expecting students to be in the building in 2018.

What’s your elevator pitch for studying business at McGill instead of all the other business schools in southeastern Canada and the American Northeast?

Well, you know, Montreal has been rated the number one city for students in the world. The QS ranking of cities that came out about three months ago. Paris is number two, sadly for Paris. It’s a very affordable city. It’s a very young city with a lot of students. Honestly, it’s just a very cool city. It’s very artsy. So, for students, it’s a very nice environment to be — if you buy a good coat. It’s cold in the winter, but you just have to embrace it. And there are a lot of activities that are still happening. McGill has a winter festival for students, for example, where students go outside dancing at night in the winter in Montreal. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean students don’t do a lot of things — they still do.

The other thing is the strength of the university and strength of the research done at McGill. It’s a first-class university in all aspects. It’s highly, highly international. Every university tries to say that and it’s usually true at the graduate level but it’s a little less true at the undergraduate level, in general. Having more than 40% international students in the business school is changing the way interactions are happening in the classroom. All of the students are bringing their own experiences and culture. And that is a big plus. They end up with friends from all over the world.


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