Death and New Life: What Survives the Move Downtown

Faculty Residencies 1964; courtesy of thunderbird.edu

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

Thunderbird is moving downtown.

Or rather, there will be a building with a Thunderbird logo on it downtown. The Thunderbird School of Global Management, as we have come to know and love it, will probably not be moving downtown. That Thunderbird will likely disappear and fade into history. Something else will occupy the new building.

 

I, like many of you, am upset. I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time at Thunderbird fighting for the value of our education. I’ve spent dozens of hours talking, explaining, and arguing with administrators both at T-bird and at ASU, trying to get them to understand the unique combination of features that attracted us to this little patch of desert in the middle of Glendale. The announcement of our move downtown indicates to me that, despite my efforts (as well as those of Jake Strickler (MAGAM ’17) and many others), the administration didn’t hear our message. I didn’t spend $60,000 to occupy two years fighting to get value out of this experience, and I certainly didn’t spend that time and money to see the school I fought to preserve get tossed aside for a shiny new reboot.

I should be upfront with the fact that I have always felt called to preserve Thunderbird’s absurdity, it’s restiveness, it’s stubborn quirkiness. If I had wanted a bland, cookie-cutter business program, I would have gone to Carey, Kellogg, HBS. I came because I am a misfit, and found at T-bird an island of misfits. The value I found at Tbird came not from the curriculum, nor from the brand, but from the community: a group of massively intelligent but undeniably atypical people with whom I felt I could explore our increasingly complicated world.

I know that my reasons for going to T-bird are not necessarily shared by my classmates. Some of you came for the ‘world-class education,’ some came for the globally recognized degree, some came for the alumni network. But these are all connected. After reading the old Das Tors, after visiting the archives, after talking to alumni and to professors, I have come to believe that this stubborn quirkiness is at the core of what made our school unique, and what made us competitive. Misfits are the ones that stand out.

And that is what I fear we’ll lose when we move downtown. We’ll become less of a community, less of a refuge. Our student body will be subsumed in the downtown population. Our admissions requirements will be lowered to fund the new building. Our Pub life will be splintered across the dozens of bars around the new campus. Our student body will be no more international than ASU’s. Our faculty will increasingly come from ASU’s stock. Our classes will be diluted with ASU students. Our irreverent, wheeling way of doing things will be replaced by ASU’s lumbering bureaucracy. Our alumni network will disappear into the grating donation machine of ASU’s alumni relations office. Our traditions, our history, our ‘mystique’ will continue to be ignored, and will soon be forgotten.

And if we forget these things, what are we? Just another tasteless, cookie-cutter B-School, desperately scrambling after whatever marketing phrase sells the most compelling half-truth to the newest batch of naive students, peddling the same rote drivel that oozes out of business schools around the world. The misfits will go elsewhere. And with them will go everything that made T-bird special, attractive, and worthwhile.

 

Or at least, that’s one way of looking at it.

Another perspective is that our campus was always a handicap, and that being out in Glendale kept us from so much of what Phoenix has to offer. We have merely survived these past 70 years, constantly held back by our geography. With a downtown campus, we’ll be able to better integrate ourselves into the international scene, supply more opportunities for our students, and take advantage of ASU’s massive resources. Our central location will attract more and better students, increasing the caliber of T-bird graduates and, therefore, the value of our degree.

Although I sometimes question his choices, I trust that Michael Crow and his team know what they’re doing. They gave me a fantastic undergrad experience, raised ASU to global renown, and, let’s not forget, saved Thunderbird from oblivion. I’m sure that the decision to move downtown was not made frivolously, and that much more thought went into this move than any of us have been able to give it in the last few days. I’m confident that, when we come back to Phoenix to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Thunderbird, we will find it, as ASU likes to say, “thriving.”

 

These are not contradictory opinions. I cannot talk myself out of believing that this move marks the end of the school I know and love. I also know that what will be built on our remains will be, in its own way, great. But I see little to no continuity between our past and our future. Of the myriad features of the Thunderbird we know, what, if anything, will survive the move? The only thing sure to survive is the brand, the name ‘Thunderbird School of Global Management.” But like Athens debating the Ship of Theseus, we’ll forever be left asking ourselves: after all the original parts of been replaced or discarded, is it still Thunderbird, or is it something else entirely?

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