Dean profile: Colin Mayer of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School

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For Colin Mayer, the new dean of Saïd Business School, there is a sense that his appointment to the top job is the completion of unfinished business.

Prof Mayer, 53, was the first professor to be appointed to the school at Oxford University in the UK and was closely involved in setting up the business school in 1996. He had always been a staunch supporter of the creation of a business school at Oxford and now that he has taken the helm, “this is part of the process, to complete the objective”.

That Saïd has become a successful school is undisputed he says, Under Anthony Hopwood’s stewardship – Prof Mayer’s predecessor – Saïd has risen through the rankings to become a significant force in the business school world.

Prof Mayer says that his job now is to catapult Saïd into the top echelons, to make it one of the leading schools in the world, comparable with Harvard Business School.

“The school is moving in that direction, and I would like to take it there.”

His appointment as dean is for five years in the first instance and he believes that by the end of that period Saïd “will be well on track to achieving that goal”.

Prof Mayer speaks with passion of his aims for Saïd.

Business schools today he says have an important role to play, especially in terms of the way in which business operates.

“I would like to see Saïd contribute to the role of business in society and business performance.”

The school he says is trying to influence the broader concepts and to this end has established research centres such as the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation, the Oxford Business Taxation Centre and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

Other research centres are on the agenda and Prof Mayer is also considering developing centres in alternative forms of investment such as hedge funds and private equity and in new areas of business in newly merging economies.

“We are looking very broadly at how business in a variety of different forms can contribute to solving social problems.

“Rather than exacerbating social problems it [business] can be a source of solving these problems,” says Prof Mayer.

Executive education, he adds, will play a pivotal role. Saïd has taken over the running of executive education, following last year’s merger with Templeton College, the traditional executive education supplier. And in October Saïd launched a £30m campaign for a new building for executive education at the school.

Wafic Saïd, the benefactor and founding trustee of the Saïd Business School Foundation, is donating £15m towards the total sum.

Prof Mayer says the new Oxford Executive Education Centre is an integral aspect of the school’s plans. The new centre will provide a forum where leaders from the business, political and academic worlds can exchange ideas and where new concepts of business can be identified and discussed and as well as introducing objectives to business in society.

“It is extremely important that business rise to this challenge,” he continues. The major problems in the world he says are not going to be addressed by macro solutions, it is rather micro involvement by a large number of institutions acting on their own initiative. The organisations that are best placed to do this are businesses and Saïd, in its turn, is in a pole position to help business to do this.

To some extent Saïd is pushing at an open door. Business is also beginning to realise, he says, that a philanthropic approach can pay dividends.

“What I think is beginning to emerge is that corporates need to do this, in many cases it is in their interests because there are profitable opportunities.”

Closely linked to this is the strong emphasis on building relations with corporations more generally.

Prof Mayer would like to broaden the existing corporate link so that Saïd works with corporations on a long-term basis.

He cites as an example encouraging executives to attend Saïd, both as participants on executive courses and also becoming involved in teaching.

Saïd’s MBA programme has expanded. It has 220 participants and Prof Mayer describes the school’s masters programme in financial economics as one of the most successful in the world.

There is room for expansion for both programmes, he says, and anticipates, under the masters’ umbrella, the creation of programmes such as joint law and economics targeted at specific consumers such as law firms and the economics departments of government.

“There is a real need for economists to have a better understanding of legal issues, there is real potential [here].”

A vital aspect of any dean’s job is fundraising and Prof Mayer intends to make this one of his priorities.

Saïd already has strong ties with the west coast of the US and Silicon Valley and has established a development office in New York. Closer to home the school has very close links with the plethora of high-tech companies along the M4 corridor.

Prof Mayer’s intention is to build on existing relations, as well as approaching other corporations to persuade them to buy into his vision.

Alumni relations have also come under his gaze and the dean plans to beef up their role, for example such as asking them to fund scholarships.

By all accounts, Prof Mayer’s appointment is a popular one among the faculty.

An engaging and charismatic figure, he is an academic to the core. He is the Peter Moores professor of management studies and director of the Oxford Financial Research Centre and amongst a raft of professional associations is a professorial fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has published widely on corporate finance, taxation and governance.

Despite his new and time-consuming role, Prof Mayer will maintain his research career and teaching commitments.

“It is important to be engaged in the broader international community of the school. It is not just administrative leadership, but giving an intellectual leadership to the school so one does have to participate in the school. I am certainly not going to give up my research career, I am keeping my hand in.”

He acknowledges that he has set himself, and Saïd, a challenging and ambitious task, but stresses that the faculty are enthusiastic and indeed that it is a task that he relishes.

“The [Oxford] brand is a tremendous way of engaging people and once we have got them here, their perspective contributes to expanding that brand, there is enormous potential.

“We believe we can offer something that is quite different in terms of a business school.

“The wider collegiate university – it is a distinctive element of Saïd. Oxford provides a perspective on education which is much broader.”

Besides, he adds with a smile, it is worth a shot.

“It would be criminal if we tried to go for anything less than that. It [Saïd] is probably the only institution that could do it.”

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