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A quiet revolution looks set to take place at the University of Oxford, that most hallowed of academic institutions. And it is all to do with a man from Cambridge – Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peter Tufano, the new dean at the Saïd school, has plans to build the reputation of the business school to match that of the university, one of the UK’s most prestigious. Few could doubt his credentials: for the past 22 years he has been a faculty member of Harvard, considered by many to be the world’s leading university.

He clearly intends to apply what he learnt there in his new job, a job for which he expresses unbounded – and very convincing – enthusiasm. “It is the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m not exaggerating. It’s as if I spent all my life preparing for this job.”

With the aura of an advertising executive as much as an academic, the 54-year-old consumer finance specialist brings with him one powerful premise: that business schools in world-class and influential universities should work with their parent institutions to expand and develop their teaching and research. “Of all the models for business schools, I think the one with the most staying power is that of a university-based business school,” presses home the new dean.

It is an argument increasingly gaining traction in the business school world, which a decade ago promoted the standalone business school as the preferred model. And it is a viewpoint that Prof Tufano argues forcefully. It is no longer enough to teach the “three Rs” of business – finance, accounting and marketing – he says, but to address the “externalities” that businesses now face. He lists the complex rules of different cultures, knowledge of science, technology and policy and the blurring lines between public and private organisations.

He uses the example of how business needs to respond to the demographics of an ageing population. While a school such as Saïd has experts on finance and marketing, it has none on demographics. “I can’t create a geography or demography department. But I don’t need to,” he says. The university will provide.

Prof Tufano points to the Oxford Martin school, the interdisciplinary research centre set up to tackle future global challenges in areas such as health, the environment and governance, as a model for the sort of collaboration he hopes to achieve. He also has high hopes for Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, announced a year ago, which will matriculate its first students in 2012. And despite the widespread hostility towards Saïd expressed by ageing dons when it was set up in 1996, those views are now muted. “Even in existing departments there is an appetite to engage.”

Charming, persuasive and urbane, Prof Tufano would be hard to refuse. Then again, he may also have a winning proposition. He is not asking people to do the “heavy lifting”, as he puts it, but to talk about their ideas. “There are so many people who are looking at ways of getting their ideas out to the world.” The question he puts to them is: “How do you want to package your ideas and get them disseminated through all our MBAs and alumni?”

Prof Tufano has already had a practice run. Before moving to Oxford, he was senior associate dean for planning and university affairs at Harvard Business School and worked on just such a plan. As he archly puts it: “This was the vision when I drafted the plan at another school.”

Implementing the changes will be much easier at Oxford, he believes, because of the collegiate system. This requires students and professors from different departments to mix in the various colleges, a formula that now seems surprisingly contemporary. “I think this school [Säid] is set up almost ideally for the loose collaborations I want to form.”

Prof Tufano will need to be persuasive outside the university as well as inside, especially with fundraising.

“You can’t be at a business school and not be sensitive to resource constraints,” he concedes. That is particularly true for faculty salaries. But he is unperturbed by this. “We’ll be looking globally to some of the best faculty. I intend to compete aggressively.” After all, he adds, “I’m not trying to hire hundreds of people”.

One of the drawbacks of heading such a young business school is that the 3,000 alumni are still building their careers, not giving back the financial fruits of their commercial success. This produces its own set of challenges. “We have to make our [fundraising] appeal more broadly. I have to go out and convince people that I have a good idea.”

He already has a plan in place, which calls for an “ambitious agenda” on issues such as global health, education and cybersecurity. But he is not planning to set up any more sponsored centres – Saïd already has eight or nine research centres. “What I need to do is create a centre,” emphasises the dean. “I have to articulate a vision that we will be much more successful if we work together.”

It is a vision that has stood Harvard Business School in good stead for a century and Säid’s dean believes this is one of many lessons the comparative fledgling can learn. Another is the support Harvard faculty give to their colleagues. “It’s about mentoring that doesn’t stop the day you get a professorial title.”

Developing a long-term strategy does not mean Prof Tufano is devoid of short-term plans. One in particular relates to the full-time MBA, which is a year in length, compared with the two-year programme made famous at Harvard. “I am acutely aware that one year is a very short time.” His remedy is to supplement the traditional taught classes with a programme of lifelong learning, with classes delivered to students using the latest technology throughout their careers. The scheme will be on the table for those MBA students joining Saïd in 2012 and graduating in 2013.

He is also looking forward to expanding executive teaching when the new executive education centre opens in 2012. Building on the Harvard model of professors of management practice, Prof Tufano intends to bring practitioners into the classroom.

“It’s my intention to keep a mix of faculty. There are some topics where practitioners are ahead of academics.” Indeed, impact is the order of the day for Prof Tufano, in research and executive teaching. “I want to see business people and policymakers grapple with the issues.”

With his undergraduate degree, MBA and PhD from Harvard, Prof Tufano is a Harvard man through and through and was widely tipped to be appointed dean of HBS in 2010, when Nitin Nohria got the job. One of his former colleagues describes him as “bleeding crimson” – not only the colour of Harvard’s academic robes, but also the name of the university student newspaper, where Prof Tufano tried his hand at journalism in his undergraduate days.

Prof Tufano believes he can use his Harvard ties to the benefit of Saïd. “If there were two university brands that were equal, it is Harvard and Oxford.” He is open to conversations with Harvard and clearly hopes collaboration will happen. “How that will happen I can’t say,” he ponders. “Whether that will happen I can’t say.”

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