Electives are re-defining the MBA, says Dean of Stern School of Business

N Ramakrishnan Chennai | Updated on February 22, 2018 Published on February 22, 2018

RANGARAJAN SUNDARAM Dean, New York University Stern School of Business   -  N Ramakrishnan

Rangarajan Sundaram talks about the latest management studies trends, and why the B-school attracts a bevy of Indian aspirants

“There are continuously these stories on the death of the MBA. These stories are vastly exaggerated,” says Rangarajan Sundaram, 56, who took over as Dean, NYU's Stern School of Business, on January 1. Applications to the top schools are still strong, he says. An economics graduate from the University of Madras, Sundaram got his MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad before getting an MA and a PhD in Economics from Cornell University. He joined Stern in 1996 and is the Edward I Altman Professor of Credit and Debt Markets and Professor of Finance. During a recent visit to Chennai, he spoke to BusinessLine about Stern, the future of the MBA programme and Stern’s plans. Excerpts:

Do you have many Indian students coming to Stern for an MBA?

Last year, the number of Indian applications jumped 12 per cent. Stern is one of the strongest schools in the world in finance and Indians love finance. We are in New York City. The combination is a deadly one for Indians. India has historically been our second largest applicant group after America, by far the largest international applicant group. For a while, China was closing the gap. But last year Chinese applications were down 8 per cent and they are now only 60 per cent of Indian applications.

Do you do a lot of outreach activities in India to attract such a large number of applications?

It is partly by reputation, partly by people following our professors. Aswath Damodaran, for example, has a worldwide following. And, being Indian, there is an extra appeal to Indians who follow him. Apart from that, there are many other reasons to follow Stern and finance. Finance is not the only thing that is strong at Stern.

Has any Indian B-school approached you for tie-ups?

We have been approached by some major schools and we are evaluating the alternatives. This is obviously a market we are interested in. But it has to be the right kind of programme, it has to be long-term focus. It has to be with a partner with whom we are comfortable, they have to be comfortable with us because it has to be truly a joint programme.

Over the years, has there been a restructuring of the MBA itself?

The world has changed a lot. The MBA was introduced in 1916 by Harvard Business School. In 1916, the need of the day was general managers who understood and took a global view of businesses. Large conglomerates recruited from business schools then. If you look at where MBA students today largely go — if, for example, you take a school like Harvard, and Harvard prides itself on general management — most of the students now go into jobs in finance, private equity, investment banking, consulting, they become entrepreneurs. Very few go into traditional general management roles. The MBA has been adjusting in terms of the electives they offer. You will find lots of courses in private equity, investment banking, strategy.

When I joined Stern, most of our students went into sales, currency trading and investment banking jobs. Today, 95 per cent of currency trading is automated. There are no currency trading jobs.

You are also strong in consulting, media, technology and fashion...

We are so strong in finance — always the number 1, 2 or 3 ranked school for 25 years — that people tend to forget that Stern has many other tremendous strengths. We have one of the largest collections of computer scientists and data scientists in any business school in the US. Stern has five departments ranked in the top 10; finance is merely one. Of course, it is the strongest by some distance.

Let us take the Tech MBA or the Fashion & Luxury MBA. It is a completely unique approach that we pioneered for doing the MBA. It tries to marry the traditional breadth of an MBA with the depth in one field. You go through one semester of a standard business core, all the things you have done in an MBA as a core. The second and third semesters, you do a few core courses specialised to those two areas. It has a twin core — a business core and an area core. It is a 12-month MBA with three semesters instead of four. Instead of an internship, you work on company projects. We have tied up with many companies.

The last distinguishing feature is we have created a two-week immersion in New York and on the West Coast for the Tech MBA and in New York and Milan for the Fashion & Luxury MBA. Students get immersed in companies in these two sectors for 10 days, where in the morning they get a class of what the business is about and, in the evening, they visit the company and they actually learn about the business. By creating this thing of working with company projects in lieu of internships, you get the full experience of an MBA but in a shortened timeframe. That enables you to focus on what you want to focus on. This programme highlights strengths we have built up. It doesn’t cannibalise the existing MBA because it is complementary to it and it introduces a new model. Companies have signed up by the dozens to participate in the programme.

In some sense, the qualifications are the same as a regular MBA. But what is different is, you have to show a strong proclivity for technology/fashion.

They are both starting in May, both limited to 25-30 students starting class. You will get all the breadth you will get in a traditional MBA, but you will get increased depth in one area.

The MBA must change and it is changing.

You said the majority of your students went into financial trading. What do they do now?

We are proud of our strength in finance and there is no way we are ever going to relinquish our hold on this spot we have in finance. Finance continues to be incredibly important to us and our placements in finance are strong. Where it used to be hugely dominant, now it is merely the most dominant area. Consulting has become strong. Ten years ago McKinsey didn’t come to Stern to hire.

Today, McKinsey is our fourth largest employer. Our largest employer is Amazon, a technology company. Our second largest employer is Deloitte Consulting. Only the third largest is a financial services firm. When you take the first five, there is only one finance company. Companies have recognised our diversified strengths. There has been a diversification on both sides. More students are going into things that are non-finance and more non-finance companies are coming to Stern to hire, but finance continues to be our visibility factor.

Do you think the glamour for an MBA still continues?

Applications continue to be strong. As I told you, our applications from India were up 12 per cent last year. There are continuously these stories on the death of the MBA. The stories are vastly exaggerated. It is true lower rated schools are getting hit by a fall in applications. Applications to the top schools are strong. We continue to get 10-11 applications per seat, which is the typical standard ratio for all the top schools.

Published on February 22, 2018
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