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An MBA's nice, but not essential: Gerry Schwartz

To hear Gerald Schwartz tell it, anyone who attends the business school he funded won't need to bother with an MBA. That's because they'll already know what they need to succeed, he said, and will just need a few years in the real world to polish their educations.

The $25-million Gerald Schwartz School of Business opened on Nov. 1 at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. It's a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Schwartz - he was granted an honorary degree from the school several years ago. The chief executive of Onex. Corp. sat down with StFX president Sean Riley recently to talk about the school and its goals.

What is the need for business education in Canada?

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Mr. Schwartz: Business has gone from a series of small entrepreneurs and people who serve very local markets, and over the last century has grown into a very complex thing where many disciplines are interrelated. You used to be able to work your way up in the system and learn things along the way. There's no question in the last half of the century and the beginning of this century that the opportunity to learn something about a lot of disciplines that together create the fabric of a business is just essential.

Dr. Riley: The quality of undergraduate education is extremely important for Canada as a whole. There are about 3 million Canadians that will go through an undergraduate experience in the next decade and the quality of that experience will have an impact in Canadian society and the economy quite apart from what happens to them if they go on to graduate school or research or academic careers.

You're looking to have an undergraduate education that has that combination of educational fundamentals across a range of complex disciplines, but you're also hoping that the undergraduate years will be when they get much more exposure to the global world, whether through co-op or educational exchanges.

It sounds so trite, but students are much more conscious of entering a global economic situation than they might have been in earlier generations. We have a lot of work to do to make them feel at home in a global environment, even if they're studying in a small population centre. We still have to get them into the world as much as possible so they have their feet under them when they move on to the work world.

Mr. Schwartz: In an undergraduate business environment, the best learning experience is the interaction students have with each other. They need to learn from each other as much as from professors and lectures and other teaching tools. When you can aggregate some of the most curious minds, you get a multiplier of knowledge that doesn't exist anywhere else.

Is that why you were attracted to Antigonish?

Mr. Schwartz: I hadn't thought of it in those terms. I'm very taken by this university. It's entirely a residential setting. You don't see the busloads coming in and busloads leaving at night. That means it's an all-enveloping world in which it becomes part of the fabric of your life, rather than a 9-5 experience. The second factor is the exceedingly high proportion of full-time faculty. I think that makes an enormous difference.

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Dr. Riley: In our teaching budget, 88 per cent is for full-time faculty; 6 per cent part-time, 6 per cent sessional. What that means is students are being taught by full-time faculty from the day they arrive to the day they graduate. They have a lot more access to faculty, develop closer relationships And when you have pretty much 100-per-cent of the student body on campus or within walking distance, you get a lot of interaction.

Why is it important they don't leave every night? It's a bit of a metaphor for today's business world, where you're expected to be working all the time.

Mr. Schwartz: That's a good description of it. But the other thing is the learning from each other, students teaching each other; one kid is from a rich family and the other one is poor. They all bring something from their lives to each other, it doesn't end at 5 p.m.

Why did you decide to put your money into a business school?

Mr. Schwartz: I have a little history in business myself.

Yes. But there are other ways to contribute - why this?

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Mr. Schwartz: I am involved in other programs at other universities and in operating some exchange programs between Canadian and Israeli universities. I am personally interested in more than just business schools. However, life has been good to me and it's been good to me through a business career. I think the chance to help strengthen the foundation of young people going into business, as I did, just appeals to me.

What do you look for in new hires now? Is business education an absolute requirement?

Mr. Schwartz: I wouldn't say it's an absolute requirement, but if you look at the 12 managing directors of Onex, my guess would be eight or nine would have graduate business degrees.

How important is an MBA, then?

Mr. Schwartz: Interestingly, a good undergraduate program does a lot of what an MBA does. I think a really good undergraduate program and some work experience is just about the equal of an MBA.

I would put it slightly differently: People with undergraduate degrees in other subjects - history, philosophy, medieval studies or whatever - for them, an MBA is a very helpful tool to get into a workplace. But with a good undergraduate degree, it should be far from a requirement to get an MBA and I'm not sure how useful it is.

Just looking at Onex: We hire almost entirely at the most bottom level and bring them through a nine-year training program. We're probably 70/30 today not requiring an MBA.

What should this business school emphasize, then?

Dr. Riley: We want to offer all the technical expertise and the world view. We are also trying to have a focus of looking at traditional disciplines in a slightly futuristic way, including the impacts of technology on management processes and the whole trendlines around globalization.

How do you strike a balance between fundamentals and adapting the program to reflect the current situation?

Dr. Riley: By constantly reviving the curriculum. But the internationalizing of the experience is the biggest change. More students are getting an international component as part of their undergraduate diet. We have students going to study in France, Norway, Spain.

What sort of student will succeed here?

Dr. Riley: We're looking for the same students that most places are: high-energy participators, creative types, because we're not trying to drive everyone into particular moulds. Up to 50 per cent of their diet is in non-technical business subjects. We need students with a gleam in their eye in terms of leadership and who are ready to make their move.

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