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It was with a sense of déjà vu that Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou arrived at work last September to take up her post as the first female dean at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
Montréal provided the Paris-born and raised Bajeux-Besnainou with her first north American teaching job almost a quarter of a century ago, albeit not at McGill but at the nearby Université de Montréal.
Back then she was trying to fit her work around her husband’s career and had secured a job transfer from France to the US.
Bajeux-Besnainou’s position at Desautels was a stopgap post while she looked for a permanent position closer to her husband’s office in New York, and necessitated a long and complex round trip each week from the family home.
“We were living in New Jersey and I was commuting to Montreal to teach,” she recalls. “This time, my husband kind of followed me.”
Aside from Desautels, Bajeux-Besnainou has known only one other employer — the George Washington University School of Business, where she spent 21 years rising up through the ranks, most recently serving as associate dean of undergraduate programmes.
Teaching as a faculty member is her first love, she insists, adding that a passion for leadership is a recent discovery. “For the longest time, I was really not involved in administration — on the dark side of academia — and I was very happy being a professor and a researcher,” she explains.
“Then it happened that . . . I became chair of the finance department. Somebody has to do it. Usually professors are taking turns to do that and I really loved it, which was a real surprise for me.”
Bajeux-Besnainou was not looking to up sticks and cross the border to Canada when the top job at Desautels became vacant last year.
“I was contacted by a headhunter and I said, why not,” she recalls. “It was a great fit.”
Her predecessor Peter Todd, who left to take the helm at HEC Paris, was known for dramatic change, making the MBA programme self-funding and increasing tuition fees from C$1,700 per annum to C$39,750 ($28,558) between 2009 and autumn 2015.
“I am trying to implement a very different managing style,” Bajeux-Besnainou says, noting that she is not in a rush to implement further changes.
“I feel that a new dean, especially when you come from outside, can be very isolated and not get a good understanding of what is going on. So I have been meeting with faculty members and other staff individually and in groups.”
This personal approach at Desautels is easier given it has fewer than 100 academic staff and about 550 postgraduate students. One of the reasons Desautels students often cite for choosing the school is the small class sizes.
Bajeux-Besnainou also identifies the course content as an offering that differs from other institutions.
“We are trying very early on in the curriculum to make sure that the students have a very comprehensive view of management and are not being too siloed,” she says.
“This is something that is very important at the student level, but it’s also important at the faculty level because, as they are required to co-teach some courses, there is some more collaboration that happens between faculties in different areas, which I think is very healthy.”
One of the concerns for Desautels in recent years has been its MBA programme’s drop down the global rankings. Over the three years to 2015 it slipped from 61st to 100th place in the FT’s MBA rankings, though it rose to 85th in 2016. It is a problem Bajeux-Besnainou acknowledges, although she claims that there have been factors outside the school’s control.
“Canadian schools have suffered a lot in the rankings for different reasons. One of them is the Canadian dollar, which has dropped a lot in value relative to other currencies.”
Bajeux-Besnainou argues that survey data fail to acknowledge that many students choose Canadian schools for reasons other than money.
“A lot of our students are coming and want to stay in Canada and would be very keen on getting their first job in Canada, even if it doesn’t pay very well to start with, because they want to stay in Canada,” she says. “I think that is probably a good position for me to start with because it means we can only go up when the exchange rate changes in our favour again.”
I want to know if she thinks being a female dean brings anything fresh to the role. She replies that she feels women have “a more human grasp” on matters and that the staff at Desautels are aware of her management style being very different.
Born and raised in Paris, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She then applied to study economics and finance at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris.
In 1989 she completed her doctorate in mathematics applied to finance at the Université Paris-IX, then taught finance at Essec Business School until 1993.
From 1994 to 2015 she worked at the George Washington University School of Business, where most recently she was associate dean of undergraduate programmes, overseeing interdisciplinary curriculum design.