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INSEAD: Half a century of excellence in business education

Coincidentally a year after Lehman Brothers has collapsed, INSEAD, one of the worldwide leading business schools, INSEAD celebrates its 50th anniversary and it is using the occasion to demonstrate to the world that its curriculum and the alumni it has produced, have indeed been a blessing to the business world rather than a curse.

No other group of professionals took a worse battering during the current economic slump than business school trained managers and bankers. The MBA’s seemed to have disappeared in an intellectual dead end of mathematical analysis and pseudo-real case studies and could not see the disaster coming. They could not explain it, when it broke and couldn't come up with solutions after it had happened. Instead of asking economists and business school professors for answers many people turned to historians to make sense of it all.

Planning their venture in 1959, only a decade after the end of the second world war and at the birth of the EU, the founders of INSEAD like Claude Janssen saw the school as part of the healing process for Europe: “We decided that no more than one third of the students, board or faculty could be of one nationality.” 17 nations took part in that first class and the first professor appointed was German. Daniel Muzyka, former MBA director at INSEAD, told the “Financial Times”: “INSEAD gave a platform and a voice to something other than the US-centric view of the world.”

Ever since then the school has been committed to providing a unique multicultural learning environment, bringing together people, cultures and ideas from around the world. “Creating global business leaders who have a worldly perspective and the capability to operate across geographies has always been a part of INSEAD’s DNA,” says J. Frank Brown, current dean of the school. In keeping with this, a decade ago the school created a second campus in Singapore; today it runs programmes in Abu Dhabi too, which is likely to become a third full campus.

Frank Brown, Insead Although the Paris Chamber of Commerce gave the new-born business school seed funding, INSEAD had to pay its own way through accrued fees. It was this independence from the university system that made the school successful, says founder Janssen: “It made us entrepreneurial and closer to business.” Frank Brown, the current dean, agrees: “Would INSEAD have had the freedom to do, what it has done if it were part of a university?” he asks. “I doubt it.” Arnoud de Meyer, who taught at INSEAD for 23 years also feels this independence strengthened INSEAD: “If you had an idea you could always do it. Nobody ever said, 'an academic institution doesn't do that'.” Tom Robertson, dean of the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, with which INSEAD today has a research and exchange alliance, says INSEAD's independence made it entrepreneurial and innovative and as a result attracted entrepreneurial faculty. 

But how does all of this heritage help to tackle the fall out of the crisis? This was an issue discussed by INSEAD's Dean Frank Brown and his counterpart at Wharton, Tom Robertson, at the 50th anniversary celebration in Fontainebleau: How have their schools’ MBA programmes been altered to suit the changing landscape? Both schools reacted to the financial upheaval immediately, starting to involve students in discussions while re-assessing the curriculum. “Professors couldn’t just pull out last year’s notes and continue,” says Wharton's dean Robertson. “We began doing ‘teach-ins’ - bringing students together with professors to discuss ramifications, what might happen. The first one had about 1,200 students. Then we had to have overflow rooms because 1,600 or 1,700 students actually showed up.”

“We have had some terrific debates at INSEAD,” adds Brown. “We get a large group of students together in an amphitheatre with several teachers from different specialties. It’s all about dialogue, multi-discipline. The other thing we’re seeing at INSEAD is faculty members from different fields getting together and taking a look at ‘What does this mean for me? What does this mean for us?’ It’s a fabulous opportunity for research.”

"We’re very focused on looking at public policy and at the impact of public policy,” says Brown. “Particularly for the MBA programme. And our MBA committee is planning some partnerships where we might look to offer some joint degrees: MBA and public administration.”

Will the current economic climate re-shape the approach to teaching people wanting to join the financial industries? “There’s been a reality check,” as Wharton’s Robertson points out. “What the crisis has done is force people to re-evaluate their objectives. Many of them still want to be investment bankers, but fewer of them than last year, obviously.” Brown still sees other possibilities. “I think there are fundamental changes taking place in the world economy that will excite MBA’s and create opportunities,” he said. “Not just in private equity but also on the regulatory side. When you look at markets, you look at government involvement in financial institutions and at the stock markets. I think there’s tremendous opportunity there.”

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