Interest in the full-time MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business is booming. Duke Fuqua boasted a record number of applications to its Daytime MBA program last year.
For the school’s dean, Bill Boulding, it was the icing on the cake of a five-year term which saw Fuqua’s full-time MBA ranked number one in the US in 2014; a smaller-sized business school in Durham, North Carolina, putting juggernauts like Harvard and Wharton to the sword.
It’s no surprise then that, in February, Bill was reappointed to serve another five-year term until 2023. An imposing figure who played basketball in his college days, Bill is not standing still.
Business schools, he says, need to operate outside the b-school bubble, within the context of wider society. And today’s wider society is a complex one. For Bill, a new era means new challenges.
A New Leadership Challenge
Number one challenge? Step forward, Donald Trump.
Bill is more tactful. The political environment in the US today, he says—the divisiveness, the political discourse around immigration, race, sexual identity, and legislation that’s either cast as pro-religion or anti-LGBT—has created a world that’s far more complicated for a business executive to deal with.
And, he notes, a world that’s completely antithetical to the world of business, where diversity breeds innovation and innovation breeds success.
“There’s a new leadership challenge,” Bill explains. “It’s gone beyond the challenge of understanding how to bring people together in an organization and build a strong culture.
“The path has become more complicated as political events force you to make public decisions. Do you stay on the sidelines or do you weigh in?”
Business and politics have become increasingly intertwined. While business leaders in the past weighed in on political issues when their direct interests were at stake—on taxation or import duties for example—today’s executives are faced with moral dilemmas; the choice of whether to speak out or stay silent.
Do you speak out against immigration laws? Do you counter legislation which threatens same-sex couples? It’s about corporate activism, and the internet and social media play a big part in that.
To prepare his students for the challenge, Bill runs Duke Fuqua’s Distinguished Speaker Series, where he hosts conversations with leading executives to find out more about the issues they face, and how they decide whether to speak out or stay silent.
Like Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, who decided to pull the 2017 NBA All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, in opposition to the ‘bathroom bill’—legislation, later repealed, which threatened restrictions on the use of restrooms by transgender individuals. Or Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, who managed to prevent Arkansas religious freedom legislation, which disenfranchised the LGBT community, being enacted.
Other speakers include Apple CEO and Fuqua MBA alum Tim Cook, who spoke against religious freedom laws in Indiana which allowed for discrimination against same-sex couples, and SAP CEO Bill McDermott who publicly opposed Trump’s immigration ban.
It seems not all decisions in business today are data-driven. Fuqua’s also launched a new strategy class, taught by Professor Aaron Chatterji (pictured below)—who previously served as a senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)—which centers on how to make decisions in situations where business and politics collide.
“In a world where it’s ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’, when you take actions that support a certain group, you have to be very careful that they’re not perceived as being against another group,” Bill continues.
“How do you come to a certain decision? What do you fall back on as the basis for making those decisions? We expose our students to the kinds of issues business leaders are confronting and we get them to unpack those issues, taking students through their decision-making thought processes.”
The Trump effect is being felt by US business and business schools alike. Latest data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)—where Bill sits as a board member—suggests that two-thirds of US business schools experienced a decrease in applications from internationals in 2017. Only 32% reported an increase, down from 49% the previous year.
In the face of “significant headwinds,” Bill notes, Fuqua enjoyed a record number of applications in 2017—3,796 applicants for its Daytime MBA class of 2019. Still, those headwinds—tricky visa regulations compounded by the Trump administration’s suspect stance on immigration—are creating a problem.
“Students are asking: ‘Will I be welcome in this country? Is the US still a country that values people from all over the world?’ This is a new phenomenon,” Bill explains. “What we did was to make sure we sent out a clear message that we offer a welcoming community—a rich, robust environment with people from all over the world—and applications held steady.”
Although 46% of Fuqua’s applicant pool for 2016-17 hailed from outside the US, Fuqua’s current Daytime MBA class is 39% international.
The school is fighting on other fronts—expanding its global reach through a key strategic partnership with Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. Duke, in partnership with China’s Wuhan University, runs Duke Kunshan University, which offers a multilingual master’s in management program.
If you can’t get to Duke in Durham, North Carolina, you can get to Duke elsewhere. Fuqua is now offering a 100%-online Master in Quantitative Management: Health Analytics program.
MBA students’ motivations are changing too. Students want to make a social impact in their careers and, at Fuqua, more students want to work in the technology sector. Between 2016 and 2017, 19% of Fuqua MBA students went into careers in tech. Amazon was the biggest employer—taking 15 students into full-time roles and 30 into summer internships—followed by Deloitte, McKinsey, BCG, and Microsoft.
Fuqua has become a school at the intersection of business and technology—a trend Bill only sees increasing. The school’s new Master of Quantitative Management program is also designed to attract internationals. The STEM-designated program means students can gain a three-year STEM extension on their visas to find jobs post-graduation.
From alumni like Apple CEO Tim Cook, to Melinda Gates and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to altruistic MBA grads giving back and building factories in their hometowns, Bill’s mission for the school is to drive change and, in spite of the current political climate, carve out a positive path ahead.
“I don’t separate my goals from the goals of the institution; to drive innovation and change,” he says. “We graduate around 1,000 students a year across all our programs—we’re not a huge factory. But we believe in the power of leadership and the idea that one person can change the lives of thousands of other people through what they do.
“Our students have an opportunity, from this small platform, to do really amazing things.”