Saïd Business School’s Peter Tufano on leaving Harvard for Oxford

Peter Tufano, dean of the Saïd Business School, at his home in Oxford

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Professor Peter Tufano, the dean of Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, rents a house on St Giles, the grand, tree-lined artery that runs towards the heart of the city where the colleges have massed their turrets, towers and cloisters over the centuries.

Residential houses are an anomaly in this street. What makes Tufano’s home even more extraordinary is a large garden with a greenhouse shaped like an upturned concrete ark.

It is late summer. Most academics are lying in a smouldering heap or being wheelchaired out to Tuscany to recover from term. I arrive early and find Tufano, who was born in Monticello, New York, in 1957, checking the wheelie bins in his front garden a few doors down from the Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings – JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and others – used to meet.

Just inside his front door the crimson stripes of a Harvard gown hang beside a more sober Oxford gown and some coats belonging to Tufano and his wife, the attorney, arbitrator and mediator, Mary Jeanne.

A Harvard man for 33 years, 22 of them as a faculty member, Tufano was the founding co-chairman of the Harvard Innovation Lab in 2010, a year before he got the Oxford job. Since then, Tufano wears his crimson just once a year when Oxford university allows outsider livery.

It has taken time for the Saïd, founded in 1996, to be accepted by some of Oxford’s hierarchy. “The school did not always have the support from the university that it has now,” says Tufano. “This is a general problem with business schools in universities. But the level of support for this business school within the university today is extraordinary.”

Tufano has continued to integrate the school with the university, just as he did at Harvard. He is passionate about the Saïd and yet he did not always aim to be in the business world. His initial ambition was to become an architect. However, he decided to enter academia when he realised he would probably end up project managing rather than designing. “I’m doing the same kind of work with the school as I’d have done if I’d become an architect. I’m building. Bricks stay where they are, people go out into the world and do amazing things,” he says.

Tufano has plenty of architectural styles to contemplate at his Oxford home. Like many traditional English houses it is an accretion. A 16th-century barn grew, century by century, into today’s three-storey confection, with a pretty 19th-century staircase and an 18th-century wing for the dining room. The kitchen, which connects to the dining room, has doors on the street outside making this ideal for caterers when the Tufanos are hosting events.

The house has expanded from its 16th century origins

His favourite room, of the five downstairs, is at the back of the house. An Adam-style fire surround and a central pillar give the room grandeur although this is the original barn. Glass doors open on to the garden, vast for the inner city at a quarter of an acre. An ironwork gate pierced into a 12ft stone wall leads from the first garden of roses, lavender and Russian vine to a lawn surrounded by walnut, chestnut, magnolia and a towering Judas tree. Croquet hoops and mallets lie scattered in an open shed. More high stone walls, dripping with climbers, surround a pool and burgeoning apple trees.

“We’ll make crumble with the apples,” says Tufano who recently presented Prince Charles with honey from the Saïd’s Kennington campus on the outskirts of Oxford.

The final surprise is a third garden, again bounded by high walls, with a large greenhouse in the shape of an upturned boat. How did he come to find this rus in urbe?

“It was really easy. I went to the university and said I need some place to live and I have a couple of criteria; one, I want to be able to host dinners for 12 people easily; two, I want to be able to have stand-up parties for 40 to 100 without much problem; three, I want to be convenient for students and faculty . . . being part of the university, and, therefore, being in the centre of things was important.”

Despite having inherited a lot of “stuff” from his and Mary Jeanne’s families, there are not, as he puts it, many “doodads – nick-nacks” around the place. Architectural detail such as cornices, the panelling, and (empty) glazed 19th-century display cabinets prevent the place feeling spartan.

When the Tufanos arrived the house was run down. Burst pipes and billowing ceilings had to be replaced and bedroom sinks removed. Off-white and pastel paintwork covers the original decor of brown pipe smoke. “I love playing with old houses. You have to bring out what is there. It might be very cold and it might be that you’d prefer a different room layout but you have to be able to enjoy what it is,” says Tufano who has already mentioned, a couple of times, that the house is very cold in winter.

The renovation work was carried out by the university but the plush red seats of some dining chairs were upholstered by Tufano and his 22-year-old daughter, Nora, who has been working at the upmarket rental start-up company, Onefinestay.

“We looked up how to do it on the internet. I like to fix broken things. Bikes too – cycles – although I have not had much time for that here,” he says ruefully.

A Specialized bike leans against the bookshelves in his office overlooking St Giles – a second, less valuable bike is used for mundane travel although, mostly, he walks the 12 minutes to his main office at Saïd’s city centre venue. He muses on his Oxford home and its immediate surroundings which include religious institutions, the Ashmolean Museum, theatre, cinemas, restaurants and interesting people. “It doesn’t get better than this,” he says.

Unless, perhaps, at Cambridge, Massachusetts? Either way the family homes are back across the pond. One is a holiday home in Truro, Massachusetts, close to Edward Hopper’s house; the other is in Cambridge.

“We have an 1807 federal antique house [originally] built on what was later to become a busy street, like St Giles. And then, in 1867, after the US civil war, they moved the house about a block away and re-sited it on a new foundation. And this is the beauty of a post-and-beam house. There’s so much structural integrity of the house that you can just literally roll it,” says Tufano who is flying back to the US in a few hours with Mary Jeanne.

A reminder of his professional life in the US sits in his home office: an (empty) M&M dispenser, a gift from his Harvard students, symbolising the Modigliani-Miller financial theorem on capital structure.

An M&M dispenser, a gift from Tufano’s students

We move on to the more comprehensible grounds of one of Tufano’s favourite examples of a Saïd student going on to make an important contribution to their community.

“If you’re deaf in India, it’s very difficult to get a job but you get a bus pass. And so this young man has founded something called Mirakle Couriers to employ deaf people to be couriers around Mumbai. It is a for-profit venture.” That young man is a Saïd MBA, Dhruv Lakra.

Since Lakra’s time, Tufano has introduced the 1+1 MBA at the Saïd. The two-year programme is an MBA paired with a specialised MSc, allowing students to focus on anything from water policy to Japanese studies. The programme shares some of the same aims as Tufano’s Harvard Innovation Lab and has attracted £4.5m in donations from Bill and Karen Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation. Tufano was Bill Ackman’s finance professor at Harvard Business School: the money followed the man.

Still, projects such as Lakra’s work for the less privileged is a speck in the ocean. Does Tufano worry about working within the elite and rarefied worlds of Harvard and Oxford?

“It is less rarefied than you might think . . . in both places extraordinary students are coming from all around the world . . . But both institutions share a commitment to make sure that they’re not elite on the basis of what their families did or how much money they make. I have a lot more work to do because I have to raise a lot more money for our scholarships and bursaries.

“So I am thrilled if elite means the best students . . . who are committed to dealing with some of the most important problems in the world. That’s what we’re about. It’s a world-class business school community embedded in a world-class university tackling world-scale problems.”

Jane Owen is editor of House & Home


Favourite things

I know I would not be allowed Mary Jeanne and Nora as favourite things and so I suppose it will have to be the dogs. They are sisters. Miniature poodles called Daisy and Violet and they are nine years old.

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