Andrew Ainslie is the first to admit that he is a traditionalist. Appointed dean of the Simon school at the University of Rochester just seven months ago, he is on a mission to take the school back to its roots.
Why? Because he believes that business schools that stray too far from their core teaching do so at their peril.
“One of the things I worry about is that business schools are starting to get into ancillary businesses,” he says. “It’s really important for us to focus on the full-time MBA - many of us have stopped doing that. When people talk about the top five business schools, they are talking about how the MBA is ranked.”
It is a view that may be contrary to the perceived wisdom in the business school market at the moment, but it is a view that Prof Ainslie has honed over many years in both business and academia, including 14 years as a professor at the Anderson school at UCLA, most recently as senior associate dean. While many schools are diversifying their programme portfolio to offset risk, and in particular launching specialised masters programmes, he has plans to focus on and grow Simon’s full-time MBA. “I think it is a battle you have to fight.”
Rankings are central to the new dean’s strategy. “My primary focus is to do well in the rankings,” says the relaxed marketing professor, expressing a sentiment that would send a shudder down the spines of many a dean. “It’s a dangerous thing to do but I have to rally people round the idea. Sometimes it means being a little bit brave.”
The Simon school’s MBA is ranked 85 in the world in the Financial Times 2015 MBA rankings, and is the forty-second US school listed. Prof Ainslie expects much better. “We want to be back to being a top 20 school [in the US].”
The popularity of the Simon MBA programme has been on the wane and now enrols just 130 participants a year, down from 200 a few years ago. Over the next five to 10 years, Prof Ainslie wants to see the school claw back those students, and even enrol as many as 240 a year.
Although the programme will still be relatively small by US standards, and Rochester’s location on the shores of Lake Ontario are some distance from the major conurbations of the US, Prof Ainslie has no doubts that Simon can still be highly ranked. “There is very little correlation between the size of an MBA programme and its ranking. The size of the city doesn’t seem to matter either,” he says. “It’s easy to become passive, to say ‘oh, we’re a small programme, woe is us.’”
No such strategy for Prof Ainslie. His first move has been to terminate the one-year MBA degree, which he believes does not work in the US market. “It works very well in Europe because there is an infrastructure around it,” he says. In the US, he adds, the MBA is predicated on an internship between two years of study.
He is also planning to reverse the strategy of his predecessor, which involved opening the Simon MBA to those with little or no work experience - about 15 per cent of enrolled students fall into this category today. Prof Ainslie intends to halve that number, and move back to a class with more substantial work experience. As well as reviewing the admissions policy he is planning to increase career support and develop a more relevant curriculum - “There I’m not old-fashioned.”
Prof Ainslie has also rationalised Simon’s portfolio of masters degrees, though he fully supports masters in finance and business analytics. For him, masters degrees and the MBA perform a very different function in the school. “The purpose of masters programmes is to generate revenues. The purpose of an MBA is to generate reputation.”
Prof Ainslie’s own roots are in Zimbabwe and he studied for his undergraduate degree and MBA in South Africa. He also worked in the UK and Brazil before deciding to study for a PhD in marketing and statistics at the University of Chicago when he was 32 years old. “It was the adventure of a lifetime,” says the trained pilot who enjoys flying in his spare time. He worked for three years at Cornell before “bouncing over to UCLA”.
“Cornell has been good at being visible,” says Prof Ainslie of his former employer. “We have to be a bit more visible too.”