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mba schools - spring 2010

Brooke Dobni, Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan.Chris Hendrickson

Saskatoon is Canada's boomtown and Brooke Dobni sits at the centre of the economic surge based on oil, uranium and potash. At 50, he is acting dean of the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan, and a veteran of 20 years of teaching and administration at the school. He is also a candidate for the official dean's position, left vacant last year and subject to an executive search that should wind up by late May. Whoever takes over will find a school dedicated to teaching, above all, business fundamentals.

Gordon Pitts: What's your story?

Brooke Dobni: I was born in Kindersley [Sask.] two hours from here. Dad was an entrepreneur and I played some hockey around the province. I'm a Saskatchewan guy through and through, and believe in the province.

Pitts: You have a number of masters programs at the school.

Dobni: We have probably the most successful masters of professional accounting program in Canada. That is targeted at people in industry who are articling for their [chartered accountant's designation] Our students' pass rates are among the highest in Canada for the CA exam.

Pitts: Are you making changes in the MBA program?

Dobni: About two years ago, we switched back to a part-time option. Prior to that, if you wanted to do an MBA, you had to come for the full year, full-time, and it was not convenient for a lot of folks. So we went to a part-time offering, as well as full-time; you can do the MBA in one, two or three years. That allowed a lot more students to get access.

Our enrolment is growing and we will have our biggest MBA graduating class within two years. We're graduating about 30 students a year now and our hope is to graduate 50 a year going forward. Applications this year are up almost 50 per cent from last year.

Pitts: What is the MBA's niche?

Dobni: What we do well is focus on business. I've been around schools in the U.S., Canada, Britain and New Zealand and I've found a lot of them were offering all these boutique things - an MBA in non-profit or indigenous management, or in economic development. But in doing so, they got away from teaching the nuts and bolts of business.

We have a very tight program. Our core courses are extremely focused on business and the integration of those concepts and techniques to make value-added decisions. We make no excuses about that.

Pitts: What is the role of the new MBA building, which was donated by local entrepreneur Kay Nasser?

Dobni: By separating the MBA from the undergrad program and having a place downtown, it really builds a culture of business. The MBA cohort feels good about it because they have their own place. We've seen a real change in attitude with students becoming much more confident.

Pitts: Where do students go after graduation?

Dobni: Saskatchewan's economy is pretty good and a lot of them are staying right here in the province. There has been a lot of uptake of MBAs in some of the bigger organizations, but also in small- to medium-sized enterprises.

There are quite a few companies in Saskatchewan that employ 30 to 100 people. There are a lot of support businesses, machine shops and infrastructure support for the mining and oil and gas industries here, and they require that expertise.

We claim 100 per cent employment within three to four months - with the exception of last year, which was a little more difficult. We also have a student-based consulting group, and so we will employ our own students, if necessary. My background is private-sector management consulting, and that's the model we bring in for our MBA students. We charge for what we do and make money at it, and make no excuses for that, because we are ingraining that culture of business.

The theme I talk about is that we are putting the 'B' back into MBA; the business part has been lost in a lot of schools. I've experienced a lot of MBAs coming from elsewhere who don't have that level of business knowledge expected of MBAs. Keep in mind that we're not putting out accountants and financial planners [in this program] They understand that part, but they also understand the bigger picture of how it all works in an organization.

Pitts: You've said you don't have an MBA for indigenous studies but don't you have a large indigenous population?

Dobni: The business school here is very successful in aboriginal recruitment and retention. We understand the issues that aboriginal students have coming into universities from rural areas and reserves. We spend a lot of time and effort on transition. About 18 per cent of our undergraduate body are aboriginal students, or at least the ones who have declared that status.

In the MBA program, we have a bridging program [supported by Bank of Nova Scotia]available for the 10 to 15 aboriginal students every year who want to come into the program.

We give them a one-week mini-MBA, focusing on GMAT [graduate management admission test]strategies. We have an average of three or four aboriginal students among our total of 50 MBA students at any time.

We used to have a big aboriginal component or specialty in our MBA program, and aboriginal students would flock to those classes. But we weren't doing them any favours. The best way to help aboriginal students is to teach them about business like everyone else.

Pitts: What's the role of Murray Edwards, the Calgary energy titan and U of S commerce grad, who gave the school $11-million?

Dobni: The only question he asks me is: How are the students doing? He's never asked for anything in return for his donation. In fact, he was very humbled that we named the school after him. He didn't even want that. Murray and Brett Wilson [another successful alumnus]are catalysts. When Murray comes to the school, everyone seems to show up.

Pitts: Do you get a lot of out-of-province students?

Dobni: Eighty per cent of our undergraduates are from within the province, but we're getting more and more from outside. The reason is we've started to position the school differently. The other schools are all good, so what can I say to those people who want to know how our school is different? So we have repositioned the Edwards School to have more business in the curriculum.

Even at the undergrad level, if you go to anybody else's curriculum, you'll find about 60 per cent of the classes students take are actually business-related and 40 per cent are in the arts and other electives. We're changing our ratio to 80 per cent business, so when students come, they will have an opportunity to do a double major [in business]

It will take a few years, but that will be our differentiator.

Our MBA is a little different in that half the students are from outside the province. We're attracting international students, but also a number from the East.

There are two people from Toronto in our MBA program this year and they say, "You guys have the best program for the value. That's why we chose to come to Saskatchewan."