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As James Ellis – or Jim as he prefers to be known – leans back in his chair in the Financial Times offices in London and explains the benefits of online learning, it is clear he is not the usual bookish business school dean. “It (online learning) will allow a student in Fargo, Dakota to talk to one in Aberdeen, Scotland,” explains the top dog at the Marshall school at the University of Southern California. What is more, he adds, he has played golf in both locations – in Aberdeen, he emphasises, in the rain.
It is easy to conjure up a picture of the 65-year old former retail executive on the golf course, but this shrewd businessman has also proved his worth as a business-school dean, a job he has held for the past six years and for which he clearly still has tremendous enthusiasm. “I can’t tell you how much fun it is,” he says.
Prof Ellis has applied straightforward business knowhow to running the school. “The bottom line is that you’re running a business. You’ve got fixed costs.” That refers to both faculty staff and buildings. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is simply space. “We want to put on more programmes.”
Online education will be helpful, but the school is cautious about technological developments. “We’re giving it a shot,” says the former chief executive of Porsche Design. He himself is clearly more attuned to the more traditional methods of teaching. “The mentor is the optimal education,” he believes. “But one-to-one doesn’t work any more as a financial model.”
So, one section of the MBA programme – 75 students – will study online from 2013. And the school is also launching an online Masters in Business for Veterans degree, aimed at military personnel returning home to the US. “Technology is something they are used to.”
Online learning is not cheap, he points out. “We’re charging full tuition. It’s for people who can’t get to the bricks and mortar. We’re taking the business to the consumer. There are more people trying remote programmes these days.”
The school is also moving into one-year specialised masters degrees, a recent development in the US, and a path many schools have taken to diversify their revenue sources as enrolments on traditional MBA programmes have declined. “Talking to other deans, that has become a real saving grace,” says Prof Ellis.
As well as developing its existing masters degree in accountancy, new programmes in finance, entrepreneurship and marketing are on the cards, though Prof Ellis acknowledges that the school has been a bit of a laggard in these. “We’ve been a little slow in getting them up – I can’t tell you why.”
However, at undergraduate level the school has been particularly innovative and has answered another of Prof Ellis’s aspirations – to build a global brand. “It is critical to the students,” says the marketing professor-turned-dean.
Marshall has announced an undergraduate degree in business with European and Asian partners – Bocconi University in Italy and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Arguably the first programme of this kind in the world, participants will spend a minimum of one year in each country as part of the four-year degree. The World Bachelor in Business will enrol 45 students a year from 2013.