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I was talking recently to the former dean of a UK business school, who related a conversation between himself and one of the professors at the aforementioned institution.

His biggest regret, he told the professor, was that while he was dean he could not convince the academics of the strength of his strategy and how it would propel the school to a higher position vis-à-vis its peers.

“Oh, we knew it was a great strategy and would make us a much better business school,” came the professor’s reply. “We just didn’t want to do it.”

It is hard to imagine such an attitude holding sway in any kind of institution, public or private, except at a university. Unfortunately, this attitude can stifle change and potentially even kill off the institutions that employ those same professors.

This also raises interesting questions in relation to executive MBAs — those hugely expensive senior management degrees that are increasingly proving to be the flagship programmes of many business schools — because the programmes’ success depends on the support of the professors involved.

Until 20 years ago, EMBA degrees catered for an almost exclusively local market, determined by a format that required weekend campus-based study. Then Duke University’s Fuqua school launched its global programme, the University of Chicago (now Chicago Booth) started running a branch of its programme in Barcelona and soon after, the Kellogg school at Northwestern University launched its partnerships with universities such as HKUST in Hong Kong.

Business schools had begun to realise that programmes that embraced international locations and businesses, as well as online learning, had a real appeal. But two divergent strategies have emerged. Some schools have set up overseas campuses and others have forged overseas partnerships. The two approaches mean business school brains have been taxed over which approach is best.

One school, Insead, has combined both options, with campuses in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore and an EMBA partnership with Tsinghua.

A glance at the FT EMBA ranking suggests the right answer is the partnership model. The top five programmes in the EMBA table are all partnerships. The Insead and Tsinghua EMBA tops the table this year, but Insead’s own MBA, which is taught in all three of its campuses, ranks at just seven.

So why should that be so? For those schools that choose to go it alone, persuading students they want to enrol on these multi-location programmes and even persuading them they want to pay the exorbitant fees — up to $180,000 — does not seem to have been the problem. But in some schools it is clear that persuading professors they want to teach on these programmes overseas has proven to be difficult.

This reluctance in the academic body might help explain why partnerships are emerging as the dominant model despite the logistical nightmare they present. For example, partner schools must decide at which school students enrol and in what currency they pay. And what happens when exchange rates suffer extreme fluctuations? The partnership model also requires the professors at the partner schools to work together — never a given.

But it seems these issues are easier to manage than persuading professors to invest time in travelling in order to teach. When Chicago Booth moved its European campus from Barcelona to London, there were lots of reasons for doing so. London was (and is) Europe’s business and finance hub and home to one of the highest concentrations of talented managers and bankers in the world, people Chicago hoped to attract.

But there were other reasons. Professors preferred London to Barcelona because it was easier for them to do private consultancy work there, as well having multiple direct flights between Chicago and London and none at the time between Chicago and Barcelona.

Of course one of the big headaches for business schools has been that those academics willing to travel are often the younger ones. Given the high fees, EMBA participants are looking for the star professors with high performance skills to teach them, not the newcomers who have just finished their PhDs.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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