Beyond the Bottom Line
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Oxford Entrepreneurs Are Meant
To Consider How to Save the World
OXFORD, England — The main lecture hall at the University of Oxford’s Sa?d Business School isn’t named for a banking tycoon, a high-tech entrepreneur or a big-ticket donor. It honors former South African President Nelson Mandela, a choice many at the school believe is key to understanding Sa?d.
“It’s a small little tag that stands for something much bigger that we’re about, which is the idea that we are not just fitting [students] into a machine, but we’re either shattering the machine or rethinking the machine,” said management-studies lecturer Christopher McKenna, who likes to point out the “Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre” sign to new students.
An emphasis on what it calls “social entrepreneurship” — finding ways for business to tackle big issues like poverty and the environment — is part of what helps to distinguish Sa?d, which enters the top-25 business schools in the International ranking of this year’s The Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey of recruiters, in 23rd place. The school is also noteworthy for its internationalism. This year’s 214 full-time M.B.A. students came from 41 nations; only 5% are British.
Students and faculty say Sa?d’s place within one of the world’s top universities gives them access to impressive academic and networking resources and provides an interdisciplinary, intellectual grounding. The weight of Oxford’s history, they say, is nicely balanced by the youthful vigor of a B-school established in 1996.
The mix of old and new is visible in Sa?d’s main building, a sleek, light-colored brick structure full of open spaces, designed by architecture firm Dixon Jones, whose work has included high-profile refurbishments of the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery in London. Like the university’s centuries-old colleges, the business school is designed around an outdoor courtyard, but Sa?d’s feel is modern and airy.
Fiona Reid, the school’s director of entrepreneurship, said Sa?d still feels a little bit like a start-up — albeit one that is part of a venerable blue-chip company. Sa?d’s newness, she said, “meant almost that you can reinvent the business school…sort of look ahead and think, ’What’s going to be important in 20 years’ time, 50 years’ time?’ and not be constrained by history or how a business school is usually run.”
That reinvention has meant recruiting faculty from an eclectic mix of academic backgrounds. Historians, philosophers, anthropologists and political scientists work alongside economists and experts in accounting, operations research and management, as social issues like poverty, the environment and technological change are debated.
Still, while Sa?d’s students pursue a variety of careers, the traditional B-school paths of banking, finance and consulting remain the most popular, accounting for 59% of the 2006 class.
Sa?d scored strongest in the Harris survey for its graduates’ work ethic, which got top grades from 73% of the recruiters who participated in the poll. Roughly two-thirds were pleased with graduates’ analytical and problem-solving skills, and 69% scored the alums strongly for well-roundedness.
Half of the survey respondents said they would recommend Oxford strongly or very strongly to a friend or colleague looking to recruit an M.B.A. student, and 54% said they were likely to recruit there in the next two years. But many recruiters were lukewarm about their past hires from Sa?d, with only 31% of respondents giving Oxford top marks for alums’ success.
The university’s tradition of probing, even argumentative teaching comes across in the business school’s classrooms, said Colin Mayer, the school’s dean. Every Sa?d student and teacher is affiliated with one of the university’s colleges, making it easy for them to mix with scholars in areas from physics to art history.
Steve Rayner, who heads the school’s James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization, described the school as a place that is “at least as interested in why you create wealth as it is in how you create it.”
The science and civilization institute is one of a dozen research centers at the school. The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, funded by The Skoll Foundation, whose founder and chairman is former eBay Inc. President Jeff Skoll, is a focal point for students and faculty interested in how business can confront issues like the environment and poverty. Other centers look at such areas as professional-service-firm management, business taxation and the running of major projects like the Olympics.
Much of Sa?d’s fund raising focuses on the research centers, with a new one on business in India now being developed. Mr. Mayer also hopes to expand the school’s executive-education offerings, which include courses custom-designed for individual companies and open-enrollment classes on subjects including strategic leadership, advanced management and negotiation.
The school, which is named for benefactor Wafic Sa?d, a Syrian-born businessman who is one of Britain’s wealthiest men, also offers a part-time, 21-month executive M.B.A. course for midcareer students.
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