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Mumbai: Sally Blount, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the US, believes that business education needs to be rethought, and has proceeded to do just that in her past three years at the school she once attended. The former Boston Consulting Group consultant who has spent 20 years in higher education—she taught at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and was vice-dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business—has, in the process, tapped executive resources from consulting and consumer product companies. In an interview with Mint last week, Blount spoke about the need to reinvent business education, her school’s India focus, and the importance of technology in education. Edited excerpts:

You have completed over three years as dean of Kellogg. How has the experience been?

It was a great privilege and honour to be asked to come back and be the dean of my alma mater. I had done my graduate work at Kellogg back in 1988-92 and then went to work at a couple of other institutions. All of the finalists for the dean’s role were people who had Kellogg degrees but had been working at other institutions. We knew the world had fundamentally changed and that we needed to rethink our strategies. That is what I spent the first couple of years doing. I really thought about how the structure needs to look like for a premier global competitor. How we need to reposition our brand. How we need to think about realigning our thought leadership with the challenges of this century.

So what did you do?

I recruited a very strong outside team. Traditionally, Kellogg has had a very dean-centric model, but one of the things we are noted for is that we are strong team builders. We have two McKinsey partners who came over to us; our chief financial officer came over from PepsiCo where he had been CFO (chief financial officer). Our chief marketing officer came out of Procter and Gamble. Many of these people actually have Kellogg degrees so they get what we are trying to achieve. These are all people who are challenged by the idea of rethinking business education in the 21st century.

Tell us a little about your India expansion plan. You have a tie-up with ISB (Indian School of Business)...

We were one of the founding partners along with the Wharton School (the association was formed in November 1997), and decided to work with some very strong Indian leaders to create a new model of business education for India. In fact, the idea for ISB came out of a discussion on the Kellogg campus in Illinois. We helped create one-of-a-kind experiment in business education in India. People didn’t think it was possible to create ISB, and working together with Wharton and key senior leaders, something has been created in just over 10 years that is unprecedented, I’d argue, in any other emerging market, not just India. We have lent faculty over the years, we have lent administrators. Until very recently we would sign the certificates and now ISB is independent. I think ISB is a tremendous success story and the dean there is a tremendous leader.

Let’s talk a bit about business school rankings. Despite your good track record, your school does not figure in the global FT top 10 rankings…

We have to remember that we get ranked in full-time, part-time and executive MBA…so it all depends on what rankings you are looking at. We actually think that in the long-run the executive MBA (Kellogg’s joint programme with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that topped the 2013 FT Executive MBA rankings) will be the more popular of the global degrees. I believe that in the long run, fewer students will pursue a two-year MBA. More and more one year-degrees are becoming more popular.

Any particular reason for that…

Even though we are living longer, people perceive that they have less time, in their 20s, especially in emerging economies. We just saw a 30% increase globally in applications for our one year-programme in the past admission cycle.

There is a perception that when the job market is weak, people tend to be a little reluctant to spend on an MBA programme.

Yes, but the slowdown has been going on for some time now. Even in a slowing economy, we saw a 30% increase in applications for our one-year MBA programme. Applications for the full-time MBA courses are up about 10%. We have had more applications from India last year than any time before. We have over 600 applicants each year, and of that about 10% get admitted, and 75% of those granted admission, attend. So we have a very high acceptance rate among those granted admission. This is primarily for the two year-MBAs.

Most of the Indians go to our HKUST partner programme that is so highly regarded. And, those batches are small…they tend to be 40-50 people classes, so it is a more select group of executives. The executive MBA is not as popular in India as it is in other parts of Asia, but we believe it will grow.

An MBA in the US can become less attractive (and more expensive) because of currency depreciation in emerging markets. Does that concern you?

I think a lot about the cost of higher education—whether a person comes from India or the US. I believe education can change lives and we have to constantly be thinking about how we make great education more accessible for as broad a group of people as possible. But some of that has to be done by online education. Only a small proportion of the population gets to attend leading universities around the world. My job right now is to provide an extremely high quality and high status product for the world’s best student; other people’s job is to create online massive open enrolment courses that are going to touch people. I constantly think about how I can ensure that the best students who don’t have the means, can still come to Kellogg. I am always out raising money for scholarships.

You are bullish about technology, but online MBAs are not being taken as seriously as an offline course.

We are in the business of face-to-face education and we believe technology is going to make that more and more effective over time. So we are not embarking on online degrees but what we are doing is assuring that we can fully leverage the time that students spend in the classroom by making as much use as we can out of the classroom—of content that you can get online. There is no reason that a student should be paying for a Kellogg degree if the student can get the content just as effectively somewhere else.

What do you think of the quality of MBA graduates across the world?

I can vouch for the top-tier schools, because those are the programmes I know and those are the deans I am familiar with. You can’t have a great organization unless you understand who your customer is and no one understands better than Kellogg how to think who your customer is and how to position a company in a market. We understand that you have to have deep collaboration skills. So the customer focus, the deep collaboration skills, etc.—those are the kind of things Kellogg has always been strong at, and we believe are especially important in the 21st century because business is going to be about solving hard, unexpected problems, getting a lot of perspective, and making decisions.

So do business schools churn out business leaders or good business managers, or a combination of both?

I believe leadership and management go hand in hand. I know that our mission is to prepare the next generation of leaders. At Kellogg we say that we are here to educate, equip and inspire. I don’t stay up at night so that they (the students) can get rich. I stay up at night so that they can change the world. Because I know of no better model for making change happen in society than free markets. You can’t create jobs faster and more effectively through any other mechanism.

But many good and proven leaders have engineering and other degrees, not necessarily an MBA. Is it imperative that a leader has an MBA?

A great leader needs a great education. It can be in the real world. It can be in the classroom. It can be because of how they were brought up and some very hard things that they overcame. A great leader has to be able to think well and be very resilient. I think there are many paths to leadership. If you want to be in business, the thing that an MBA gives to you is the ability to understand each of the different functions and how they come together to make a strong business enterprise, but there are many paths to leadership.

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