Warm welcome to new ideas

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During the months of December, January and February, George Gau, dean of McCombs School at the University of Texas at Austin, likes to call friends and colleagues on the snow-bound US east coast and point out that, where he is, the temperature is up in the 70s.

But while Prof Gau cites the warm winters as one of the advantages of Austin as a place to live, when it comes to recruiting MBA students, he prefers to play down the advantages of the city’s relaxed lifestyle.

“Our aspiration is to be the best public business school in the nation,” he says. “And the only way we can to that is to have a major portion of students who want to work nationally and internationally.” That means attracting a higher proportion of students that are not planning to settle in Austin after they have graduated.

In trying to broaden the student body, Prof Gau has an example to follow.

During the 1960s, the school’s dean, George Kozmetsky – the school’s first dean with a business background as well as an academic one – set about shifting what was at the time a very local focus at the school that was established in 1922.

His efforts paid off. Today, 30 per cent of the MBA cohort is made up of international students.

Like many US schools, McCombs has benefited from the big inflow of students from Asia.

But because of the Spanish speaking population in Texas and their ties to Latin America, a large proportion of the international students are also from Mexico and countries in South America.

But while Prof Gau wants to raise the national and global profile of the student cohort, his ambitions for the school are not limited to the make-up of the student body.

A six-year strategic plan, posted on the school’s website, lays out details of the areas in which McCombs intends to strengthen its offerings.

First on the six-point list of initiatives is a move to beef up the finance, management, and marketing programmes to match the school’s recognised strength in accounting and information systems.

Part of this is to be achieved by adding faculty members – 40 over a five-year period – without increasing the number of students accepted on to the MBA programme.

“I felt that relative to the rest of the university and to our competition, we just didn’t have enough faculty relative to our student size to get the quality we wanted,” says Prof Gau.

Additional faculty will also contribute to another of the school’s plans – to enhance its research environment. Prof Gau sees no mileage in the argument that too strong an emphasis on research distracts staff from their teaching duties.

He conducted a review of student evaluations of faculty over a three-year period to see how the average student viewed faculty that were only teaching versus those doing research. “On average, guess who came out better – the research faculty,” he says. “So a great business school is only as good as the quality of the research that’s going on inside the school.”

But as well as boosting the academic resources of the school’s MBA programme, the McCombs strategic plan looks outside to the corporate world. Here, the school has something of a track record in programmes involving partnerships with industries.

The school has an initiative in supply chain management that is run with Dell and other leading firms interested in supply chain issues, as well a 10-year-old initiative in investment management run by students with a private investment company.

In addition, the school has a number of partnerships with overseas schools to promote studies in international business. As a result, McCombs’ MBA students can, for example, work on an international project during the semester, after which they visit other countries to research and deliver the project, often with students in partner schools.

At a time when US schools are having to work harder to compete with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, Prof Gau believes such programmes give McCombs an advantage. “We have a history of doing this,” he says. “So I’ve said: ‘let’s look for more opportunities in that area’. That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”

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