Q&A: AACSB President Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson, right, and GMAC President Sangeet Chowfla

Tom Robinson, right, with GMAC President Sangeet Chowfla

Why did AACSB recently decide to pursue the International Organization for Standardization certification, and what does that mean for your member schools? 

The ISO certification is internationally recognized. It is voluntary and we don’t have to do it. We want to do it because it is what businesses use today. There are literally more than 1 million businesses that have gotten certified under ISO. We think that by pursuing the ISO standard it will be another thing that will help bring us closer to business. It assures quality and continuous improvement of quality. We think employers and the schools value that. We’ve seen some business schools get ISO certified. We think if businesses know that business schools are following a process of ISO certification, it will give them an additional level of comfort. We want to continue to look at national standards around the world and align ourselves with them.

What do you think are some of the most pressing issues facing business schools today, and what role can AACSB play in helping to address them? 

I think business schools in general are facing pressure in their business models. Public funding is declining no matter what country you are in, so business schools have to be more creative about how they deliver things. They have to look for ways of basically enhancing their products or services. They are working with businesses to provide executive education. I‘ve recently seen a number of business schools that have partnered with very large global and public organizations to basically be their leadership-training provider.  We’re seeing more and more of that as business schools partner with businesses to provide customized education opportunities for their employees. It fits the lifelong learning idea, but helps them compete with the decline in funding from public sources, which is the big challenge right now.

Another thing I’ve noticed is it’s been difficult for some schools to keep up with technology and the pace of change in this area. What we do look for is examples of where business schools are leveraging technology in a smart way and basically disseminate that out to our members. We are a conduit for sharing ideas and best practices around our organizations. One thing we haven’t pursued yet is figuring out if there is a way to use the size of our network to leverage the purchasing powers of business schools. That’s something we’re at a very early stage of looking at.

What are some of the most exciting innovations you’ve been seeing at undergraduate business schools since you took the helm at AACSB? 

I spent a lot of time last year focusing on data. If you look at AACSB accredited institutions, probably about 75 percent of business enrollments are still at the undergraduate level, so it is absolutely critical area for us. What has changed most in the last decade is the number of experiential learning opportunities. We certainly had some when I was a faculty member, but there are now many more students who get to solve real business problems while going to school. They get the opportunity to develop a new business while they’re going to school. They’re not just standing up in front of the classroom and doing a PowerPoint presentation. They’re much more engaged in the learning process, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I do see it particularly with entrepreneurship labs, where students are working on consulting projects.

In fact, part of our 2013 standards required that students are heavily engaged and that schools offering experiential learning. Certainly it was happening before we introduced it in our 2013 standards, but in the last few years it has become more robust.

Why do you think there’s been such a boom in the number of specialized Master of Science programs being offered at the graduate level in the last few years, and what does that mean for the MBA degree?

One of the major trends I saw when I was at the CFA Institute was an increase in the depth of knowledge you need to practice in finance or accounting or new areas such as data analytics. Back when I took the CFA exam as a student back in the 1990s, I had a small stack of books to read. Today’s CFA curriculum in 9,000 pages and 18 books that some has to read. That’s a huge depth of knowledge. What I’ve seen over the last decade or so is an increased need for specialized graduate business education. There’s been an increase in the number of Master of Science in finance, accountancy and data analytics programs. It is because there is a demand for people early in their career who have the depth of knowledge to practice in a specialty area. So certainly there’s been a shift in the last decade from a generalist MBA to a specialized master degree. People are still pursuing MBAs and continue to do so, but the same people who are doing specialized master programs need to come back for an executive MBA or a part-time MBA or some executive development program. What we’ve seen as we look at the last five years of data is the decline by 6 percent of enrollment in generalist MBA enrollment at accredited schools, but a 40 percent increase in specialty master’s enrollments. What you will see going forward is business schools in their entirety offering a portfolio of different types of programs depending on the stage of someone’s career. Early in someone’s career, they may need specialized training, but later they may need to come back later to top it off with management and leadership skills.

What are some of the things you’d like to help AACSB accomplish in the next few years, and how do you think you can get there? 

We have a new organizational mission and vision and a new strategic change agenda. There are 30 things on there that speak to where we want to be in five years. We want to be the most well recognized, principals-based accreditation program globally. We want to be increasingly recognized by the business community. We’d love it if every prospective business school student going to business school is no longer looking for just an accredited school, but looking for ones accredited by AACSB. I’d love it if schools were more recognized for the value they add to business and society. We want those schools that are doing good things to get more recognition. For example, we just started a new Influential Leaders Challenge. We ask business schools to nominate an alumni who has done something good in business, and we have been able to put some great examples out there through this initiative. But we think business schools can do more. I’d love it if in five years business schools could be seen as providing more than just an education in how to learn about business or start a business, but be seen a true contributor to society.


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