Something out of the Ordinary

Author: By George Bickerstaffe

An interview with Carolyn Woo, dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Notre Dame, on ambitious plans to get the university’s MBA programme towards the top of the rankings.
p. When the College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in the US appointed a new dean in 1997 it came up with an unusual choice: Carolyn Woo, a specialist in strategy, entrepreneurship and technology, born in Hong Kong.p. “I am very different to the Notre Dame profile,” says Prof. Woo. “I am not an alumnus; I’m not a man and I’m not a Caucasian.” But Notre Dame needed something out of the ordinary (and in fact it courted Prof. Woo assiduously during most of the 1990s).p. Although the college’s undergraduate and postgraduate accounting programmes are highly rated, its MBA programme languishes in the lower reaches of business school rankings. The aim is to get the programme within the top 25 within five years.p. “Notre Dame’s MBA programme is about 30 years old but up to now has not had a culture of strongly promoting and marketing itself,” says Prof. Woo. “It’s a sort of a gracious mentality that education is not for promotion. But the market place has changed in the past 10 years. Until about two years ago we didn’t have a formal placement office for the MBA, again stemming from the notion that education is to prepare your mind, not to prepare for a job.”p. Prof. Woo has adopted a five-point plan to achieve her goal, starting with improving the marketing of the programme and, crucially, increasing the size of the programme and the quality of students admitted.p. The 1998 incoming class has about 120 students in the main two-year programme (up from 90 in 1997) and there are plans to expand it to 130 in two sections.p. The college has a significant war chest in the form of fellowships (scholarships at the postgraduate level) to attract the brightest and the best. Last year it handed out about $1.4m fellowship money.p. Currently about 30 per cent of MBA students are international, mainly from Asia, Latin America and Europe. “We try to keep it about that level, though we could go higher if we wanted,” says Prof. Woo. “But about 15 per cent are also minorities, so 45 per cent of our students are non-US mainstream.” Prof. Woo is also boosting the curriculum, particularly the provision of new elective courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, organisational consulting, accounting and finance.p. “The third area,” says Prof. Woo, "is placement. We are building a new placement centre to be ready by this summer. What we are trying to improve is the number of offers per student and the salaries per students.p. “The next is our day-to-day operations. We’re really tightening that process to make sure we render excellent services and we do it in a way that is efficient. So there is a lot of process re-engineering that has to be done.”p. The fifth area is culture. Like the university, the college has a strong sense of the Catholic religion and a commitment to the teaching and practice of business ethics. Prof. Woo, herself a Catholic, comments: "One reason I came to Notre Dame was because I wanted to be a part of an MBA programme that had a very strong sense of values and a strong sense of stewardship in addition to being very rigorous.p. “I am concerned that we are training young people and preparing them to succeed beyond their wildest imagining. It is not unusual that three years or even one year after graduation students start making $100,000 – $150,000, carrying wonderful titles and wonderful responsibilities. But I don’t want to prepare people who are casual and dismissive about decision making. I don’t want them to be arrogant.”p. The teaching of ethics is a tradition at Notre Dame. There are four professors whose main area of research and teaching is ethics and about 15 others who do secondary work in this area. “but,” says Prof. Woo, “it’s about more than ethics, or ethics as a course. It’s more a sense of who we are, what are our values, and what are the roots from which we go into the world to do this work. There’s nothing wrong with an MBA or a business career or business success but it’s about whether you can handle the seductions that come with it.”

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