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It is mid-morning, and the calm of the office environs is intermittently disturbed by muffled bangs and thumps. “It’s construction work; we’re building a trading room for students on a new MSc in finance. I think it will be the first in Turkey, if not the region,” says Nakiye Boyacigiller.
American-born, of Turkish parents, Prof Boyacigiller is dean of the faculty of management, Sabanci University, a private centre of learning not yet 10 years old, about 40 km from central Istanbul on the Asian side of the Bosporus Straits.
“I took part in the ‘Search Conference’ for this in 1995. It was a kind of three-day brainstorming session designed to envision the future and what kind of university we needed. It was the most exciting professional three days of my life,” she says.
Seven years later, when invited to head the management faculty, Prof Boyacigiller and family abandoned a “dream home” and a comfortable, rewarding life in California to take up the task. Underpinning the move was a mix of the professional challenge and patriotic-cum-visionary duty.
“I spent 29 years in America. But what was happening here was so interesting. I mean, you could see it in the attention to detail of the way the painters and groundsmen worked. This was a labour of love. Plus, Turkey is in such interesting times. I wanted to be a part of this. I wanted to make a difference.”
The construction work is just one example of the school’s continuing efforts to stay ahead of the pack and serve its students, who include undergraduates, full-time and weekend MBAs and PhD researchers.
But the university, founded and funded by the family-owned Sabanci Group – one of Turkey’s most powerful industrial organisations – is about much more than providing the latest technical gizmo, says Prof Boyacigiller.
“Human resources people now say most people will have five different careers; not jobs, careers! So students need a broad base for life,” she argues.
Both as part of its drive to be a world-class institution and as one plank in this “broad base”, all standard programmes in the management faculty are in English, with the exception of some Turkish specialisation courses.
Sabanci also believes in self-mentoring, and minimising the barriers between students and professors. Students work in team study rooms just across the corridor from faculty rooms; nameplates on doors are devoid of title and rank; everyone eats in a self-service dining hall.
This lack of formal differentiation might raise only the odd eyebrow in the west but such policies are radical in Turkey where, despite 85 years of being a secular republic, strong deference to rank and seniority is entrenched. But the policy seems to work.
“I had applications in at other good business schools. I came here and liked the friendliness and informality,” says Ali Nucad, an MBA student who enrolled this September.
Another characteristic of Turkish education – partly due to young men, eager to delay military call-up, continuing in further education – means students often move seamlessly from school to university and then on to postgraduate programmes. For women, other pressures can lead down a similar path.
“I was offered a position in a [well-respected] bank, but I feared that once I had a job, because of high unemployment I would find it too hard to quit and take up an MBA. I also felt I was not ready,” says Nese Ozmen, a second-year MBA student.
This leaves many masters graduates in Turkey with a theoretical bias to their education. To prepare students better for the commercial world, Sabanci has introduced a compulsory work experience project for the second MBA year, dubbed the “Company Action Programme” (CAP). Students spend two days a week for six months working on projects at local companies, ranging from multinationals to medium-sized domestic operations.
“I think this programme is unique [in Turkey]. It has great corporate support, as they find incredible value in the work the students do,” says Prof Boyacigiller.
It is certainly popular with students. “For us CAP here is the most important part of the programme. It means we have hands-on working experience,” says Ms Ozmen.
However, the business faculty finds it hard to attract non-Turkish students, except in limited exchange programmes.
A push for international students will come, says Can Akkan, director of MBA programmes, but Sabanci is keen to establish a solid foundation for its domestic market.
“Our strategy so far has been to strengthen our position in Turkey,” Prof Akkan says.
Nonetheless, the long-term vision is to internationalise and some steps, notably joining the Central and East European Management Development Association, plus an application for AACSB accreditation, have been undertaken. In the meantime, students such as Ms Ozmen cannot praise Sabanci enough.
“My last university was good, but the lecturers were mainly older and would only talk about course material, and in working hours. Here, we can talk about everyday things too; everyone is at the same level.”
A model university to help professional meet the future
Sabanci University, on the outskirts of Istanbul, was established in 1994 under the direction of the family-run Sabanci Foundation. The intention was to create in Turkey a university that would be a model of higher education, a “world university”. Sabanci University began its first academic year in 1999.
The university’s faculty of management offers several programmes, including an MBA programme and an EMBA. While the faculty is global in focus, it is also keen to provide an in-depth knowledge of the Turkish context, via research into Turkish companies and organisations.
The faculty of management has links with schools throughout Europe, including Copenhagen Business School and EM Lyon in France.
The MBA is a two-year, full-time programme. An integral aspect is the company action project, in which second-year students work on projects for real companies and gain hands-on experience. Previous projects have included developing a marketing strategy for a new product for Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals group, and developing a product launch plan for 3M, the diversified technology company.
The EMBA programme is run over four, four-month sessions. Participants are expected to have at least five years’ work experience, preferably managerial. The aim is to help professionals meet the challenges of the future.