By Michael H. Moffett, Continental Grain Professor in Finance, Thunderbird
I came to Thunderbird in 1994. I gave up tenure at a Pac10 school to risk my professional future at a school that embraced international business. Where international was not a niche, but the point. It had been known as an old war stories college, but it was clearly evolving into a world class graduate program in business, and a place where I could work with like-minded students, faculty, and administrators, most of whom had a passion for international business. I have never regretted that choice, not for a single moment. It’s been a wild ride to say the least.
But times change. Thunderbird as a standalone one-trick-pony, a graduate business program relying on one degree for its livelihood, became uneconomic over time. It is something we teach; without diversification you suffer higher levels of risk. Without scale, you bend under the weight of overhead. What killed Thunderbird? Was it the decline of the MBA degree nationally or globally, the rising costs of regulatory requirements and services, the inability to innovate in a changing marketplace, the failure to find the capital needed to recruit and develop global business leaders, the failure to recruit and retain new talent on all levels, the failure of leadership to find or form a vision for the future …? All, none, and many others.
What could ASU do with Thunderbird? Consider several options. ASU could keep the current physical location, suffer continuing operating losses as it tried to maintain a facility built in 90 days in 1942 that was from the beginning only meant to be temporary. It could reinvest heavily in the Glendale location, but still struggle to draw sufficient student numbers to ever justify that investment, while still suffering higher operating costs. It could move Thunderbird to its main campus – hang the ‘bird’ logo on a building – and move on. Or it could build a new facility, somewhere special, to try and form a singular identity for Thunderbird that could somehow be functionally linked to the greater portfolio of ASU.
They have chosen the latter. Given the choices, I feel they have made the right choice, and the most promising one.
ASU made a choice to kill Thunderbird’s MBA from the beginning. Conscious or not, they did. That sealed – not determined, but sealed – Thunderbird’s fate. Forced to try and cobble a couple new degrees together in a matter of weeks, we have struggled to find strong market draw to generate the revenues to offset the institution’s costs. Although new degree developments are promising, the school remains an isolated outpost of the ASU system. The physical infrastructure itself is nearly beyond redemption. The classrooms I teach in today are worse than those at the school I was at in 1991. Facilities don’t make an organization, but they can impede learning.
ASU could invest in Thunderbird’s future, building new facilities – classrooms, study halls, graduate dorms. The investment to build new facilities, whether it be in Glendale or downtown or any other site, is substantial. How does an organization justify that investment? How does it generate sufficient returns on that investment? Would that really be a responsible use of those funds? A singular, isolated campus in Glendale cannot garner sufficient synergies with other degree programs offered by ASU or anyone else.
Let’s not fool ourselves. No one has ever been thrilled to be located in Glendale. There is nothing wrong with Glendale (I actually live there). But when you are a student with a passion to study global business, 25 to 30 years old, and you come from the ends of the earth to study there – well – it’s underwhelming. As I noted in my little piece in Das Tor about Thunderbird being like the movie Casablanca, most everyone at Thunderbird felt like refugees at a lone outpost in the desert, waiting for an exit visa. A common purpose. Everyone always laughs that the pub is Thunderbird in their mind, but it is more than true on many levels. It became a singular social light on an island of international students in a dark suburban housing area. The isolation, the common purpose, the singular point of connectedness, this all combined chemically to form Thunderbird’s unique culture.
Culture. Thunderbird’s culture is indeed unique, but without dwelling on the long over-used term ‘mystique’, I would argue its culture has clearly changed over time. You can’t go home again, as they say. Thunderbird’s culture has changed even over the period I have been here – there is no singular home to go home to. Alumni always remember the Thunderbird of their 18 or 24 month experience; imagine how different those may be over the past 70 years.
Organizational culture has changed, and there is no going back. As a standalone not-for-profit, Thunderbird’s entire existence was financially and operationally always on the edge. What this led to was a personal involvement by staff and faculty that was special and cannot be replicated – the feeling that each and every one of us not only could make a difference in the institution’s future, but needed to step up to assure that future. It was always all hands on deck if we were to survive to compete (or even operate) the next day. That is always the story in a small organization, an engaging one, and in fact is one of the drivers behind startups and entrepreneurial undertakings.
Was that exhausting? You bet. Was that rewarding? Most of the time. It’s why I came. I loved the accountability, how even in an academic setting there could be some semblance of a team-effort and collective results. Let’s be honest, most academics are the kids that didn’t play well with other kids. But that was not my experience at Thunderbird, because the school lived hand-to-mouth, no taxpayer dollars at work, only paying devotees. We were owners in many ways (although the Trustees differed in opinion on that point). We had skin in the game – our livelihoods and careers – and it was an owner-operator mind set.
Student culture. This is what I currently fear for the most. Students are no longer crossing the world to come to Thunderbird, they are crossing Phoenix. We are evolving into a commuter school, and that undermines the intensity – if not the hours – needed to support the passion for learning in global business. They are not necessarily linked. Many students today have the passion, but don’t have the physical engagement or the time as a result of logistics and human behavior. I have hopes that the new site and facilities will rekindle the high level of student presence and engagement that has come to partially define us. I have seen this first-hand for two decades; my capstone course required a work effort that would not be considered rational at any other graduate business program. But at Thunderbird it was known, accepted, and appreciated.
Nothing worth having comes free. There needs to be choice, commitment, and to be honest – personal cost.
If Thunderbird is ever going to live on and thrive as more than a logo, then it has got to come from the students who will choose – consciously and actively – to invest in a global business education. At the moment we are in limbo, caught between a beloved past and an undefined future. But that can change. A new start, a relaunch, in a new interconnected site, a site that may be a truly desirable, functional, professional one that can be leveraged to link the Thunderbird asset into a greater academic community portfolio. That is the future I can see for a new Thunderbird.
It will be different. Different can be good.