Micheál Kelly plays in one of the most hotly competitive arenas – the rock ’em, sock ’em world of, yes, business schools.
His competitive zeal helped lure him back to the job of business dean, this time at Wilfrid Laurier University’s School of Business and Economics. At 63, and after a 10-year stint heading University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management that ended in 2010, he took up his new duties in Waterloo, Ont., over the summer.
The challenge: the school, a popular undergraduate choice for business, needs a higher external profile to raise money and to do the things it does best.
Why do you say: ‘It is hard to imagine there is any other industry as competitive as business schools?’
There are 13,000 schools in the world and all kinds of new ones every day. Colleges are offering business degrees, and design and engineering schools are, as well, and there is all kinds of free content. Online degrees used to be the purview of second- or third-tier schools but now places like University of North Carolina are offering them. It’s a dramatically changed marketplace. It is not for the weak of heart.
Is there a trend toward hiring experienced deans from the outside, like you, instead of promoting from the ranks?
It’s been going on for a while. It’s such a competitive environment and there are a lot of deans’ positions open, because a lot of academics don’t want to do the job.
Why is that?
It is increasingly focused on fundraising – in the United States, it is almost entirely focused on fundraising – which many academics don’t take to naturally. A lot of schools look for people with experience in that area. It is one of the reasons Laurier was interested in me. I had done a lot of what they thought they needed to do.
Is selling the name of the school one of your big goals?
Naming the school has got to be one of the priorities. We’re in the range of $25-million to $30-million [as a target for a naming donation]. This is such a good school. The Telfer School was named in 2007 for $25-million. I think this school merits a value of around $30-million. It is probably one of the last major unnamed Canadian business schools. And this is one of the big ways that business schools can contribute to building an endowment.
Why wouldn’t I earn my degree online instead of paying much more to go to a physical school like Laurier?
I’m not sure you get the same value of education online. There is so much that goes on from the personal interaction of students, such as competitions and things like that. You can’t replicate that online. As I told my kids, I didn’t want them doing their degrees in the basement in their pyjamas. But for a certain group, who have the responsibilities of working, and perhaps have families, it is a very attractive proposition.
Are you going to offer more in that area?
We are starting to give more online courses but like a lot of other major Canadian business schools, we are a little behind the curve. We have to think not so much about online degrees, but hybrid kind of degrees, with more online content. That is the way the market is going. We’re going to be the newspaper of the next decade if we do not embrace the technology.
How do you raise your profile in the crowded Southern Ontario market?
I’m surrounded by some of the top MBA programs in the world with Uof T’s Rotman, York’s Schulich and Western Ontario’s Ivey, plus a whole bunch of other players. The Greater Toronto Area is the fastest growing market in the country, but we have to nail down a really strong competitive position and it will probably be a niche position. We have to focus on what we really do well that will attract students.
What are those niches?
One niche is leveraging all the resources in this community, such as entrepreneurship and innovation, which are things we can contribute to companies in the area. We have a fine finance and accounting group with a great reputation and we have ties into Toronto and Bay Street. But we have to build other areas where we can win an international reputation.
Just what is Laurier’s profile in Corporate Canada?
I spent my first couple of months just talking to people, and the basic conclusion is this is a really good school that has undermarketed itself for a long time. Recruiters say we’re one of the top four or five schools they recruit from. We have a number of alumni who are leaders of major Canadian companies and a whole bunch of others who are successful serial entrepreneurs. I don’t know if it is part of our old Lutheran tradition, but this is a very modest institution. Given the competitive landscape, we can’t be modest – and we can tell our story through the success of our alumni.
Is there a problem getting a big profile with a powerhouse engineering and math school, University of Waterloo, in your community?
We certainly are overshadowed by the University of Waterloo. When people think of the city and the tech industry, they naturally associate that with UofW. But look at the companies in the marketplace. One CEO said his company was founded by engineering grads from Waterloo but it really took off when they hired business grads from Laurier. As they grow, companies recognize they need the business skills. The untold story is the marriage of University of Waterloo’s engineering skills with Laurier’s business skills. But we haven’t told that story.
Your community’s most important tech company, RIM [Research In Motion Ltd.], is having troubles. Are you concerned about what would happen if it disappeared as a separate company?
Waterloo is so closely associated with RIM. I saw this CNN report which said if RIM leaves, the town will implode . But there are 800 to 900 tech companies in this town, and some others are growing and gaining in prominence. But certainly, [if RIM were to disappear] it would leave a gaping hole. It sends a lot of students to us and supports a lot of activity for the universities, and in the community. When Nortel disappeared in Ottawa, both universities had relied heavily on funding from it, as did lawyers, consultants, accountants and many other businesses. [If that happened in Waterloo], it would have an impact.
So the big jobs for you are fundraising and profile-raising?
And job three is lining up all the balls and getting us moving in the same direction. I have been really impressed with the faculty I’ve met so far and they all recognize that the environment is tough and we need a focused effort to move the institution ahead. I’m a big fan of the book, Must-Win Battles, by Peter Killing. We have to identify those three or four must-win battles, rather than have a strategic plan with 20 objectives, and 35 sub-objectives. I want to focus on those four things that are absolutely critical for us to move ahead. We need to build our international footprint; we have a bachelor of business administration program that is exploding at the seams because it has been too popular. I am afraid we are going stop delivering the value proposition that has made it a great program. We have to get our heads around technology as pedagogical tool. We really have to focus on where we will be great in research.