ASU-Thunderbird M&A: The Learning Curve

By Julio Espinoza, Staff Writer

Founded in 1946, Thunderbird has been highly regarded for its leadership in management and business education. After struggling financially in the early 2010s, Thunderbird was for sale, and Arizona State University stepped in. In December 2014 Thunderbird became part of one of the largest universities in the country. The reasons of the financial struggles are sad: a business school having business problems. Certainly there must be a convincing explanation for the hardships that led to the bail out like, for example, when operation expenses are higher than the revenue and you have to finance your way by taking loans, grants and donations instead of creating robust sustainable growth based on sales/tuition and fees. For more about the Thunderbird financial dilemma of 2012, see “Inside Thunderbird B-school’s chronic decline” by Taylor Ellis.

 For those of us who still believe both in the legacy of Thunderbird and in the advantages of being part of ASU and its vast human, academic and financial resources, we need to understand that we are in the middle of a transition and be resilient. I would like to stress that there are not only common challenges but also common opportunities for ASU and Thunderbird to learn from each other and become a strong knowledge enterprise after the 2014 incorporation.

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One of the challenges has been to incorporate the administrative and academic procedures of ASU into Thunderbird, from foreign degree recognition and validation to the teaching-learning system of credits of ASU, which differs from what Thunderbird previously had in place. For instance, many of us, not ASU alumni, faced the issue of bringing our original foreign diplomas and transcripts to ASU Tempe student services, while Thunderbird had already offered us an admission letter and reviewed all our academic paperwork electronically. If someone did not have the original documents of the previous academic degree, they would have to expense funds to bring that documentation to Arizona, after having relocated here. Another example: some people have expressed concerns about the different style of lecturing and grading between ASU professors that teach at Thunderbird and Thunderbird professors that have been with the school for years. The differences are, in some cases, significant, and there is need of more academic homogenization in terms of quality of lectures and understanding of the Thunderbird applied learning model.

While the W.P. Carey school of business of ASU offers an MBA, Thunderbird offers an MAGAM (Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management) and an MGM (Master of Global Management). Certainly both schools have different curricula for the programs they offer and, after assuming that the business content is mostly the same, it makes sense to understand that the added value of Thunderbird is the global mindset which is still part of the brand of the MAGAM and MGM programs. Most of us have worked and lived in different countries and speak at least two languages fluently. We know how to survive and prosper in different and difficult environments. We are negotiators that can navigate through different civilizations and deliver results. To be a T-bird, besides being academic and professionally successful, you have to be able to work in collaboration with individuals of different (sometimes opposing) backgrounds. This is the other component of the added value of our school: the managerial skills we learn on how to be high-performing managers that can engage with their colleagues in open conversations based on facts, not ideologies, set goals, and achieve results through a decision-making process that is flat and collaborative not authoritarian and competitive. However, the nature of the relationship of W.P. Carey and Thunderbird is still unclear to me. Are we competitors or partners? If we are partners, how can we improve the exchange of academics and students between both business schools? How can we raise the performance of both business schools? How are we sharing the market of prospective students–are we stepping on our own toes?

 After the ASU-Thunderbird M&A took place, some current, former and prospective students have been trying to figure out the identity of the school. The nature of the Thunderbird mystique continues to be one of the most popular topics in social media and table conversations. I will not define what the identity of our school should be now that we are part of ASU. I believe that identity is not a monolithic concept but a fluid idea that need to be reshaped constantly. I would rather recognize the overlapping principles of both institutions: innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and accessibility. If ASU and Thunderbird can bank on the vast resources and expertise from each other, ASU as a whole–Thunderbird included–will certainly become the role model of the new American university. American education ranks highly throughout the world because of its commitment to research, development and teaching. ASU is ranked among the 100 most influential universities of the world for its quality in research and teaching. Thunderbird is still a school and brand that carries weight in the private and public sectors of the U.S. and the world for its commitment to international cooperation and prosperity. Both are great institutions that now are better off operating under one umbrella.

 As in any M&A there is always a learning curve. We are now part of the learning curve of ASU. The worst that we could do is to over-criticize and complain without providing alternative solutions. Many of us are concerned by the many changes that sometimes seem to go against the mission of Thunderbird, such as the elimination of the graduation requirement of being tested on the proficiency of a second language or the fast pace of the academic programs that need to translate in quality learning. The long-term value of the M&A is still to be seen, but so far we can only perform at the highest level of excellence and provide constant feedback to ASU and Thunderbird staff via official and non-official channels of communication like phone-calls, emails and ad hoc meetings.

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I hope that our Alumni, Students, Academics and Staff understand that even though there are changes in processes, the strategic partnership of ASU and Thunderbird is a win-win for Arizona and the U.S. because we are now part of one of the most innovative and inclusive universities of the world. Furthermore, ASU can learn our successful model of bringing home an amazing talent pool from abroad. In my opinion, Thunderbird will be able to pass its legacy of global understanding and inclusiveness through the institutional framework of ASU, while the latter will be able to recruit talented individuals from every corner of the world and help America stay competitive. Thunderbird will never be what it used to be, but it can be better.

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