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It is one of those ongoing business school debates: should a dean be an academic or a business man? James Ellis is a bit of both.
He may not be the traditional research driven academic, but he has a Harvard MBA and taught marketing at the Marshall school at the Los Angeles-based University of Southern California for a decade before becoming dean in April 2007. He also held several business roles at Marshall, mainly in external development, as well as having a varied business career - he was president and chief executive of Porsche Design at one point, for example.
For the urbane Mr Ellis there is no real mystery to running a business school. “It’s not a hard job. You make decisions on the basis of what is right for the institution. I’m not worried about my career. I’m worried about my institution. It’s nice when you can feel that way.”
One positive for Mr Ellis is that school has come through the recession largely unscathed. Though the Marshall school has build up a reputation over the years of being an exclusive private business school with a focus on leadership - Warren Bennis is the star professor - the school relies on endowment income for only six per cent of its operating revenues. “We didn’t have to go through the exercise of cutting staff and programmes. We took advantage of this.”
In part the recession has been responsible for driving some of the changes in the MBA programme. Students will start classes earlier - the beginning of August. “We have to be in sync with the recruiting companies. When they come recruiting you [the students] have to talk the language and financial services start recruiting interns at the end of September. Eighty-five per cent of interns get a job offer so this internship has become critical.”
But it is Mr Ellis’s international experience, both personal and professional - he was both the vice provost, globalisation, for the University, responsible for building the USC name worldwide and vice dean, external relations, at Marshall - which has perhaps been more instrumental in the way he runs the school.
Starting the programme early also means that students get more chances to work overseas. For more than a decade Marshall students have completed study tours abroad, everywhere from Shanghai, to Tokyo, Sydney and Dubai. Recently MBAs have been to Moscow, where they visited the top dogs in the Russian corporate world.
“They’ve been touring factories,” explains the dean, candidly. “We don’t make things in the US any more. We want them to see where wealth comes from. Wealth comes from production.”
Mr Ellis’ plans for globalisation embrace more than just the MBA class. “The aim is to get everyone out of LA to see the world.” This includes the 4,000 undergraduate students - one of the strengths of the school. “I’ll put our undergrads against 95 per cent of MBAs. They’re good, they’re very good.”
Though globalisation is high on the agenda, the school is also deeply rooted in Southern California, an area, Mr Ellis explains, where only two Fortune 100 companies are headquartered. “We’re all about small and mid caps. So we as a school have to teach our students about innovative thinking. We want them all to be entrepreneurs.”
The school is also putting strong emphasis on social enterprise, in which businesses make money yet also fulfil a social function. “I would say that within 10 years that is what Marshall will be known for.”
Further innovation might also be on the cards. “I think you’ll see a lot more of us looking at one-year (MBA) programmes,” say Mr Ellis. “I think there is more conversation about this now.” That would be innovation indeed.