It’s not just business. It’s just personal.

Photo Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management
Photo Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management
Photo Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management

By Mark Jackson and Kate Stout

In light of the HLC decision a couple weeks ago, a group of students have organized as the unofficial voice of the TIAA on campus and an advocate for those students aligned with the TIAA initiative. We spoke with Will Counts ’09 who is the Interim Executive Director of the TIAA and Chris Gosselin ’14, who is spearheading the student effort on campus. Their collective efforts are driven by their passion for upholding the honorable Thunderbird standards that make us uniquely T-Birds. The main thrust of the TIAA and student group is to provide solutions to the current business failings and mitigate any further damage to the school. They have repeatedly asked the administration who will be held accountable for the 3 recent, critical setbacks: The HLC rejection of the strategic alliance with Laureate resulting in a further financial deficit, the MBA curriculum change to 3 week courses resulting in a student petition demanding additional courses at no cost and finally, and most detrimental to the Thunderbird brand, the loss of the US News and World Report #1 ranking, a position the school has held for 18 years.

“We would like to see all Thunderbird stakeholders have a seat at the table when it comes to setting a new strategy for Thunderbird. We would like to see the leadership held accountable for their failures over the last year,” Mr. Gosselin said when asked about the groups’ short-term objectives. “Specifically, the loss of our #1 ranking and the failed Laureate/Thunderbird JV. We would also like to see Thunderbird deliver on what they promise students when they recruit them–starting with student services and job opportunities. Transparency and a return to the exceptional student services promised to all T-Birds is imperative.”

Yet, the administration remains silent. Town Halls held when students are on spring break, 5 minute Q&As, empty TSG meetings and email updates without any information are the continued source of immense frustration for the student groups.

In support of the TIAA proposal, Mr. Gosselin noted, “I have a plan put together by 5 fellow Thunderbirds and we’re ready to share it with the administration whenever they are ready to listen.”

Regarding the proposal sent to the Board of Trustees and the Administration this week, Will Counts explained, “the proposal made by the TIAA is not an attempt to buy the school. Rather, it calls for a restructuring of the board, which would include sunset laws, minimum financial responsibilities by each member of the Board, along with guidelines for attendance and a supermajority of alumni sitting on the Board. The offer is meant to give us all time to focus on healing and beginning the overdue discussion on how to repair and overcome our differences. We are not against a partnership with a not for profit school but feel we must first focus within before looking out.” The proposal also includes a provision to create a trust that would ensure the negative balance that Thunderbird incurs will be paid in full during the stormy seas the school currently sees itself in.

When asked who the TIAA would like to see Thunderbird partner with moving forward in the future, “Certainly not a for-profit institution like Laureate,” Mr. Counts said. Additionally, the TIAA would like to see an independent body hired by the school to conduct the second search for a potential partner, instead of the Board of Trustees.

How long should the process take? “As long as it needs to take and allow ourselves to come together as a Thunderbird community,” Mr. Counts stated.

Most importantly, the negativity and hostility between stakeholders is something the TIAA and student group want to mitigate. As we’ve all witnessed this private battle move to a national stage, the continued mudslinging in the press from both sides has made it all very personal. Social media, news articles and personal blogs reveal private emails between professors, students, the Board of Trustees and alumni hurling insults at each other. Forwarded back and forth, posted here and there as shock and awe no doubt follow. The three critical failures at the root of this war now pale in comparison to the damage that is continuing to be done by empty threats and bullying tactics thrown around on a daily basis.

When asked for comment, President Penley reiterated, “when this began, the Board focused on Thunderbird’s brand, mission, and financial stability, and it continues to do so after this HLC decision. Going forward, the Board would like to, as the fiduciary body of the school, make a decision as expeditiously as possible and in as short of time as possible.”

The business issues of the school will eventually be fixed. Or they won’t. But the personal damage reaches far beyond our campus in Glendale, AZ. This damage is becoming Thunderbird’s legacy and it’s already more than any blank check can cover.

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