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Departing leaders extol virtues of listening to students

Steve Murphy is leaving Ted Rogers School of Management to become president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.

A genuine focus on students can be a winning formula for business schools.

That's the conclusion of two well-regarded leaders who are leaving the business education sector for promotions in other fields.

Wrapping up five years as dean of Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Steven Murphy is set to become president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., on March 1.

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This week, Niki da Silva left her post as managing director of the full-time MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management to become vice-president of people and culture for Right to Play, a global non-profit that uses sports and games to build skills for children facing adversity.

At Rogers, Dr. Murphy led efforts to expand experiential learning opportunities, including a doubling of student participation in co-op placements over the past year. At the current pace, Rogers expects to reach its target of 1,500 placements by 2020, according to a school spokesman.

Despite growth in co-op positions, one challenge was a shortage of paid placements in startups that, by definition, lack funds to pay students.

Last year, the dean backed an innovative proposal by the Ted Rogers Student Society, which pledged $200,000 in its own funds over four years to pay half the salary of co-op positions at startups and provide workshops to train students interested in a startup experience. Ryerson later matched the student society's financial pledge.

"The most important lesson to me is what you can get done with really effective relationships with your students," says Dr. Murphy, reflecting on lessons learned as a first-time dean. Citing the success of the student-inspired Startup Certified program, which subsidizes placements for 10 students a semester who have completed the startup skills workshops, he adds: "You can't really go wrong when you are listening to students and empowering them with the ability to make change."

Student society president Nav Marwah, says his organization's proposal was based on survey results that reported strong demand by students for experiential learning and co-op opportunities. "This project gave more opportunities to our students."

Mr. Marwah says Dr. Murphy "heard the students and he would listen to what our needs were. He always tried to do what he could to fill the gap."

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In future, says Dr. Murphy, partnerships with students, industry and others will become even more vital to a school's ability to thrive in a globally competitive, technologically disruptive environment.

As Microsoft, Google, Amazon and others angle for a slice of business education revenue, he says schools need to communicate their "value proposition" to prospective students. "You have all these people coming into your community so while they are on campus and in your classroom, they had better be getting something that they can't get online," he says. "Work to your strengths and build partnerships in terms of your strengths, instead of trying to be all things to all people."

For Rotman, the student-focused challenge was different than at Rogers.

After a stint at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., Ms. da Silva joined Rotman in 2012 as director of MBA admissions just as then-dean Roger Martin embarked on a significant expansion of the two-year program. The goal was to boost class enrolment to 350 from 265 students.

"We had about eight months to ramp up and grow," recalls Ms. da Silva. She says the school achieved its target in two years, ahead of schedule, after refining its message to prospective students, targeting growth markets (such as Latin America) for recruitment and introducing innovations to better match prospective candidates and the school.

For example, Rotman was the first MBA program to pilot new admissions software – an online video application tool – to identify top candidates. The school also strengthened ties between its admissions and careers departments to ensure potential recruits were matched to their post-MBA career goals.

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In 2016, when current dean Tiff Macklem set a "stretch goal" to recruit an MBA class of 40 per cent women by 2020 (up from 29 per cent in 2013), Ms. da Silva and her colleagues joined forces with female student leaders who decided to volunteer as "ambassadors" for the program. As well, says Ms. da Silva, the school released data on its entire class profile, rather than relying on averages, to give a more complete picture of candidates.

Crediting the collaboration with female MBA students who pursued a "40 in four" campaign, Ms. da Silva says Rotman achieved its target two years ahead of schedule.

While all Canadian schools have suffered lately in global rankings – often because salaries here can't match pay elsewhere – Ms. da Silva counsels schools to work with students to help them reach their career goal, be it a high-paying job on Bay Street or a position with a global non-profit with a modest salary.

"Students doing an MBA [today] aren't as traditional as they were 10 years ago," she says. "Many of them are quite deliberate in saying [they] want to work on sustainable energy issues in Africa [for example]. … You can push too hard [as a school] and create a culture where you are pushing students to take the wrong job. That is not a good long-term strategy."

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