May 12, 2013 10:00 pm

Business school profile: the Haas school at UC Berkeley

Haas School of Business©Edward Caldwell

When does a student stop being a student? Never, if they happen to attend the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The 115-year-old business school has for the past seven years allowed graduates of its popular MBA programme to return to the school to take courses so that they can keep abreast of new industry practices and research.

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The initiative, dubbed Student Always, is central to the school’s mission, says Rich Lyons, the dean of Haas. Three years ago he and his colleagues set about defining a set of principles for the school. “Part of our focus as a school has been to define what our culture is as sharply as possible,” he says. “Student Always was one of the elements that came out of that.

“When students first arrive at Berkeley one of the things I say is: are you going to understand when you’re at the end of your career that you still have a lot to learn? This is all about self-development.”

The other three principles – questioning the status quo, confident but not arrogant decision making, and considering the impact of decisions – differentiate Haas from other schools, he says. The new principles, which are a nod to Berkeley’s history as a liberal and socially aware institution, are “codifying what was already there”, says Prof Lyons.

The implication is that Berkeley-Haas will not turn out any pumped-up Wall Street Masters of the Universe anytime soon. Instead, it wants to create leaders who are comfortable in their own skins, says Prof Lyons – executives who are aware that they cannot operate in isolation from the society around them. “There’s a student-of-the-self element,” he says.

The school trains experts in finance and business but wants to teach them to go beyond the skills they have learnt, he adds. “It’s that transition from an expert in finance to someone you think of as a leader, someone you would entrust with an organisation, or a large part of it.”

The school’s proximity to the venture capital nexus of Silicon Valley has created opportunities for MBA students. One class, “Cleantech to Market”, pairs MBA students with PhD students in chemistry, biology and other sciences. They work in teams on clean technology concepts and then test the commercial viability of their projects at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy lab at the cutting edge of clean technology. “You can’t get that experience elsewhere … it’s an area where we have a real competitive advantage,” says Prof Lyons.

As part of the University of California, Berkeley-Haas has a public mission to provide affordable education for residents of the state. Its undergraduate programme takes in students from across the country but of the 350 first-year students about 90 come from California community colleges. Prof Lyons says the undergraduate programme is the “anchor” of the school’s public mission.

Haas’s MBA programme runs alongside its executive education programme, which is open to executives who may wish to learn a new discipline or improve their knowledge of accounting or finance. They have to pay for their courses; returning graduates can retake courses for free.

Jean-Paul Tennant is one such graduate. Now chief executive of GeoEx, an adventure travel company, he graduated in 2001 but came back to Haas to take a course on pricing. “I was able to come back to my company with some very important ideas, which are embedded in the way we set prices,” he says.

“Being in the Bay Area and having a connection with a business school that is in such close proximity has presented multiple opportunities for me,” he adds.

The feedback from MBA graduates who return to take more courses has been overwhelmingly positive, says Jay Stowsky, senior assistant dean for instruction. “People really appreciate it,” he says.

He says Haas goes beyond teaching its students about business. “People know they will get top-notch training here in business fundamentals. But they also know this is a place that cares about social impact in business. We get a disproportionate number of students who want to do well but also want to do good in the world.” It is, he says, “a very Berkeley value”.

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