How has the Great Recession affected management studies? The Dean of the Saïd Business School is on a mission to prove that a business education can no longer be about simply making money.
By Richard Lofthouse
On the occasion of the University celebrating half a century of management studies, we caught up with Peter Tufano, Dean of Oxford’s Saïd Business School (Oxford Saïd), to discuss the evolving face of business education.
One of the School’s recent innovations is a so-called ‘1 + 1 MBA’, in which Oxford’s famously challenging one-year MBA programme is supplemented not by a second year of MBA (as at many other US business schools), but by a second Masters programme in a separate subject. Tufano has already signed up ten Oxford departments, ranging from History to the Internet Institute, Area Studies, and Geography.
Such developments underscore Tufano’s gift of collaboration, which can hardly be overvalued at a widely dispersed university such as Oxford bristling with institutes, colleges and initiatives. It also underscores his mission, as he sees it, which is to transform society’s view of the purpose of a business education, which post-Great Recession can no longer merely (or narrowly) be about ‘making money’, or at least not divorced from wider issues and values.
He talks about how, since his appointment at Oxford in 2011, he and his students and faculty have contacted many other faculties at Oxford, getting numerous fellows to visit Oxford Saïd, to discuss their research with students over a sandwich and a coffee. ‘Not heavy lifting, but the gift of conversation,’ says Tufano. Comprising 95 per cent international students, drawn from 45 countries, and all no doubt brilliant future business and policy leaders, these students would, I’d imagine, present a lively and possibly challenging experience for a visiting fellow in history or English. A very fruitful and honest engagement, one can imagine.
It recalls Dermot Coleman’s George Eliot and Money: Economics, Ethics and Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2014) which we noted a while ago in Oxford Today. In this monograph, authored by an Oxonian who previously ran an investment fund, the uncomfortable issues of money and modern capitalism, as experienced by Victorian writer George Eliot, are brought to life through scrupulous scholarship, to have a freshly engaging perspective on shareholder capitalism in the twenty-first century.
The point being made here is that we are all shaped by money concerns and by business, so it is as well to embrace rather than shun that fact. Oxford has a rather poor track record on that front, if we consider the rancorous debate that occasioned the creation of Oxford Saïd in the mid-1990s, although I can’t think of a fellow-in-post today who doesn’t understand the relationship between college endowment health and the ability to offer scholarships.
Tufano has a grander scheme yet. As well as luring the University in its massive diversity across to Frideswide Square, where the Saïd Business School is positioned next to the railway station, he wants to immerse Oxford Saïd in the broader University. This is partly why the tuition fee of the one-year MBA, currently £47,925, includes life membership of the Oxford Union, to promote debate and to be very open about that. Oxford says to the Chinese or Russian or North American MBA fresher, ‘You are coming here to acquire an education and to debate values, not just to engineer your spreadsheets.’
Tufano’s own background is in consumer finance, and he explains to me how fewer than half North Americans can lay their hands on $2,000 in three days, were they to have a household emergency. From this stark finding, he was led to try and reform various US laws regulating lotteries, so as to link an innovative savings plan with a Premium Bond element. This has met with some considerable success, with Prize Linked Savings Accounts (PLSAs) introduced into fourteen states, including New York, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Washington and seven additional states on track to pass policy this year since President Obama signed into law the American Savings Promotion Act in December 2014. At its heart, Tufano’s goal was to address the widely acknowledged difficulty of getting people to save even small sums of money.
This feels like the right sort of track record for the dean of a twenty-first century business school after the Great Recession. The Great Crash of 2008–9 is not an elephant in the room any longer, but an acknowledged part of the recent landscape. Economists did very badly from it (the ‘rational actor/rational market’ theory of finance was well and truly mauled) and business schools the world over were put under the spotlight. Had they not supplied the world with MBA students, who had then gone and blown up the world economy?
The way Tufano sees it, this broad wave of global events — a tangled thicket almost as complex and contrary as the history of management studies at Oxford — was his defining career opportunity. After 22 stellar years at Harvard, he told the Financial Times upon appointment to Oxford in 2011, ‘It is the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m not exaggerating. It’s as if I spent all my life preparing for this job.’
Four years on, Tufano reminds me that Oxford Saïd has not abandoned the core elements of a business education, such as accounting, finance and marketing. But he’s very, very keen to emphasise the extent to which the School is now part of the wider fabric of the University, and how that defines the current powerful model of success for business schools. To be part of a wider fabric of research and debate is today a route to business school success, whereas a decade ago the ascendant view was that independence from a university allowed for cleaner ‘focus’.
There is a hard side to running a business school, not least the horrible business of rankings. The Saïd Business School is regularly a top twenty school in any ranking you consult, if you count these things. But Tufano’s broader achievement is also his continuing goal, four years into post, which is to help to link future business women and men, scientists, policy makers and more, to achieve great things.
For a condensed history of what preceded the creation of Saïd Business School, see
Photograph of Peter Tufano © Saïd Business School / University of Oxford. Photograph of the School © Oxford University Images / David Fisher.