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business education report, fall 2011

Peter Todd, Dean of McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management.

Peter Todd is winding up 2011 on a high note. After a difficult standoff with the province of Quebec, the dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University has won provincial approval for a new self-funded MBA. The new model has meant boosting tuition by almost 15-fold, ending one of the great MBA bargains (just over $4,000 for a two-year degree). But Mr. Todd, 49, sees it as vital for Desautels to compete in the global big leagues. The Montreal school, which had been fined $2-million for violating provincial tuition guidelines, had to convince the province that this MBA is "a specialized program," not a cookie-cutter degree.

How did you achieve this compromise?

We spent a fair bit of time working with the government, satisfying them that our program is unique, which is the criterion for being self-funded.

We pushed forward the notion that the program is situated on two prime pillars: First, we teach in an integrated way, spending a lot of time at the front end teaching about how the whole business works, rather than just individual functions.

And in keeping with the university and faculty's reputation, we are developing the international character even further. Next year, we will add a compulsory international trip for all students. This is quite common in executive MBAs, but not in a regular MBA.

I can't think of a major program in Canada that isn't calling itself 'integrated' and 'international.' So why is this so unique?

Most programs will assert some degree of an integrated approach and some focus on international. But at McGill, at the core of what we teach, is an integrated model that is team-taught and has thrown away all the individual functional courses – no more accounting, no more finance, no more marketing courses.

Instead we teach a set of modules – for example, one around global leadership and another around managing resources, which combines human resources, information technology and finance. Another is around value creation, which combines marketing and operations. We put the models together at the front and say 'This is how a business works. We're going to get you to think big picture right from the beginning before you start to specialize and drill down.'

So can you get accounting?

You will learn accounting going through that [module] We also have a base camp at the very start, where we actually do some fundamentals in accounting, math for finance, and statistics, to make sure they are up to speed on some basics.

MBA classes from the 1960s and 1970s were often young people from poor backgrounds. What happens to accessibility when you need tens of thousands of dollars of annual tuition?

I understand the sentiment, but in our own program, an MBA student is quite different than 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They all have work experience, and coming in they have an average salary of about $50,000 a year. They've been off working an average of about five years.

As we move to the self-funding tuition model, where we charge $60,000-plus [over two years] we are setting aside an average of $12,000 a person for student aid. It is coming out of those tuition revenues and we don't give it equally – we'd rather look at students we feel need support and whom we want to particularly attract. We use those funds for scholarships, that supports accessibility.

The argument (particularly in Quebec), that low tuition led to accessibility, has not been proven out in university participation rates. But targeting financial aid to the right students helps preserve accessibility.

At some point, will MBA schools have to move away from the universities because, culturally, they do not fit in?

I hope we fit in. But MBAs are professional degrees and thus much more career-oriented than most undergraduate degrees. Professional schools develop people for professions.

At the undergraduate level, we pay a lot of attention to making sure our students get a good business education, but also a broad education at McGill. We compel them to experience the rest of the university so they will be [well-]ounded. But when people come into an MBA program, they typically have done some of that 'rounding' in their prior education.

The majority of our MBA students were not business undergraduates – they have done science, engineering and arts degrees; we have artists, singers and athletes.

How have you been doing in the MBA rankings?

Last year in the Financial Times survey, we moved up to 57th place from the mid-90s, a move of almost 40 places. That's a pretty big jump and testament to the dramatically new curriculum [with an integrated management emphasis]we've put in place since 2008. It has started to pay off with the students coming in and, most dramatically, in job-placement results. In the tough economy of the past three years, we've had our best job placement performances ever and that affects the FT rankings.

You're part of a little cluster of Canadian schools in the middle of the top 100. Can't we do better?

We can and should do better. The top MBA schools in Canada do well but none of us sits among the elite Top 25 in the world. To put an aspiration out for us, our mantra is 'Top 10 in '20' – to crack the Top 10 by 2020. For us and the set of Canadian schools, we have to push and have the aspiration to be truly world-class.

What the rankings say is: It is exceptionally competitive out there. There are a lot of other jurisdictions pushing hard and if we want to compete, we can't be complacent. And we have to develop in our students an aspiration to seek opportunity around the world. It is not just about developing talent to stay in Canada but to project Canada to the world.

How are you dealing with being an English-language institution in Quebec?

In our bachelor of commerce program, about 30 per cent are francophone; more than half our students speak French and a third are trilingual. At the MBA level, we get a significant number of applicants from Quebec. We run a bilingual executive MBA for experienced managers with HEC Montreal – and they are predominantly francophone. McGill as a university has embraced Montreal and Quebec in important ways over the past decade.

If there is a disadvantage, it is the fact that for some international MBA students, thinking about local job placement opportunities is sometimes challenging.

What is the next big goal for you to tackle?

To grow on the MBA side and draw great students from across Canada. We're getting exceptional international students and [students]from Quebec. We still have work to do to position ourselves back in the Canadian context with our new model.

And we desperately need a new building. We built our people and programs over past five years and it is time now to build our infrastructure. The challenge is finding the right spot: The campus is very landlocked in Montreal, and we want to stay downtown and ideally on the campus.