Poets & Quants: Rising from the ashes, Thunderbird breaks new ground
BY: MARC ETHIER ON OCTOBER 06, 2019 | 0 COMMENTS 1,334 VIEWS
When we last reported on Thunderbird School of Global Management almost a year ago, the school had just received its best news in a long time. The Wall Street Journal had named Thunderbird’s Master of Global Management the best in the world. It was real validation for the direction of the school under new leadership, proof of positive change.
A great deal of good news has occurred at Thunderbird since then, says Dean Sanjeev Khagram, including more than $100 million in 2018 fundraising and full accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. But perhaps the best development yet will happen on Monday (October 7) when the school breaks ground on a new, $75 million Thunderbird Global Headquarters on the campus of Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona.
Arizona State purchased Thunderbird in 2014. It’s fitting that the B-school, named for the Glendale, Arizona air base that was its home for more than 70 years, should now be based in downtown Phoenix, because over the last five years Thunderbird has gone from a school in “chronic decline,” as Fortune magazine once put it, to a school on the rise — rising, if you will, from the ashes.
“Virtually all of our numbers are going up,” Khagram tells Poets&Quants, “whether that’s enrollment, internship rates, employment rates, incomes six months, 12 months after graduation. And so we really have been executing that very ambitious plan that I shared with you back in January with, really, a fervor. Partly because we have a great team and a lot of support from the broader ASU, but partly we really have just, I think, hit on a really nice chord of what Thunderbird can be going forward. So we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
THE IMPACT OF STRONG LEADERSHIP
A litany of Thunderbird’s past woes is probably unnecessary; it’s been widely discussed and amply reported. To sum up, between 1996 and 2013 the school experienced a 75% decline in enrollment in its full-time MBA program; by 2012 the school was millions in debt and facing a major alumni revolt over a proposed partnership with a for-profit education company. By 2014 enrollment had plummeted even further; the school was purchased outright by ASU that year and the Thunderbird MBA was scrapped. “Uncertain” was the rosiest forecast Thunderbird could hope for.
Enter the new dean. A one-time child refugee from Uganda, Khagram is an American success story, from a childhood in New Jersey helping his parents run a gift shop to a Ph.D. from Stanford and professorships at both Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In mid-2018, after additional stops at the University of Washington and Occidental College, he took the helm at Thunderbird.
Khagram, a global political economist, is a globetrotter, having lived and worked extensively in 10 countries. Thunderbird’s deanship has, if anything, accelerated his travel schedule: Since July 2018 he has visited 42 countries (he thinks; he may have lost count, he says with a laugh). Key to his plan for the school’s “transformation” is the opening of new global hubs: When he spoke to P&Q in January, he outlined an ambitious curricular overhaul and plan for an international presence, one that embraced Thunderbird’s foundational identity as a creator of globally astute business leaders and leveraged its 45,000 alumni — known as T-birds — in more than 140 countries. Khagram vowed that the school would be in the vanguard for the coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution” by opening hubs, known as Centers of Excellence, in 20 countries, with a mission to “create a class of highly skilled global leaders trained to operate in a world where technology is unleashing exponential change, fundamentally reordering every aspect of how the world works and lives. Nine centers are open now; Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, Nairobi, and Washington, D.C. have opened doors since Khagram became Thunderbird’s dean and director-general.
‘The First Industrial Revolution,” Khagram said, “used steampower to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to enable mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now, a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, but results are not guaranteed. That’s why global leadership is critical.”
Thunderbird’s turnaround includes skyrocketing enrollment — a more than doubling of student population, graduate and undergraduate, over the last five years, from 461 in fall 2015 to 762 in fall 2018 and (preliminarily) 954 in fall 2019 — inching back upward, closer to the 1,500 or so the school had in its heyday in the 1990s. Since fall 2015, undergraduate enrollment has grown from 25 to an estimated 360, while graduate enrollment has increased from 436 to a projected 594.
In the flagship Master of Global Management, “we’ve doubled the number of applications and we’ve doubled the number of admitted students,” Khagram, speaking this week to P&Q, says. “We have 123 starting in fall of this year, this semester, in the MGM.” The school offers 16 concentrations in the MGM. Other degrees are being offered in select school locations, such as a recently announced Executive Master of Arts in Global Affairs in Washington, D.C., and an Executive Master’s in Global Leadership and Strategy that will be delivered in six eight-day sessions in six cities around the world. Both programs begin in January. In a year and a half Thunderbird will launch a master of management in the creative industries in Los Angeles’ Herald Examiner Building, which ASU has bought. Meanwhile, with the support and partnership of ASU’s Carey School of Business, Thunderbird now offers a pair of online degrees: a Master of Applied Leadership and Management and a Bachelor of Global Management.
A NEW HOME FOR A NEW THUNDERBIRD
Amid its transformation, Thunderbird needed a new home — which is why such a sizable chunk of its more than $100 million 2018 fundraising goal has been earmarked for the new HQ in Phoenix. Alumni donations in 2018 have totaled $15 million so far. The five-floor, 112,000-square-foot, LEED Silver-certified building is expected to open in fall 2021 in time for the school’s 75th anniversary year. It will include an Innovation Lab and experiential hub, with a Global Situation Room, augmented and virtual reality suites, and a Language Lab steeped in Immersive Language Technologies, “the leading edge in language acquisition.” An interactive Global Forum will greet visitors with “a real-time manifestation of our global Thunderbird community,” connecting with the school’s 45,000 alumni and students “through social media interaction, with activity and locations being constantly updated and represented on this technology-enabled globe.”
It may be a long way from the school’s original home on an air base in the Arizona desert, but the new building is also a homage to the school’s unique origins. Each floor will contain historical kiosks chronicling and celebrating Thunderbird’s 75-year journey and “global heritage and connectivity,” according to the school’s description, while on the top floor the Thunderbird Pub will “evoke the ethos of 1946 and the founding of Thunderbird” while “showcasing the modern skyline of downtown Phoenix, with the symbol of Thunderbird lit from the roof into the Arizona night sky.”
“We brought the world to Thunderbird in our heyday,” Khagram says. “Everybody came out to Glendale, that sort of global village out there in rural Arizona. That was the magic, the secret sauce in some sense, as much as anything else — that campus. For a whole host of reasons, we’ve moved to downtown Phoenix, the fastest-growing city in the country, and now we’re taking Thunderbird to the world. We’re doing that with our online programs, which we are growing dramatically with the support of the broader ASU muscle, but a big part is these regional centers of excellence around the world.
“We’re practicing what we preach. We’re a global multinational business school. We want to be the first and best global multinational business school. And so this is our global headquarters, and we have our 20 centers around the world that we’re building and developing and launching. And it’s really that. It’s the heartbeat of this global network. And so when you walk into that first floor, you know, you enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
“You walk into that Global Forum with a ribbon of 20 screens connected to each of those hubs around the world, and a digital globe. As you walk up the five floors, you go back in Thunderbird’s history. And every floor takes you back to our origin, all the way to the very top, which you know is a very important part of the heart and soul of Thunderbird: our Pub.
“It’s a $75 million building and the city of Phoenix has contributed $13.5 million. So this is also part of our contribution to Phoenix becoming a global city. We have an incredible partnership with the previous mayor, now Congressman (Greg) Stanton, and with the current mayor, Kate Gallego. Our goal is to be a global catalyst from the local level at Phoenix, state level, Arizona, obviously in the United States, and then globally through our regional centers around the globe.”
See our Q&A with Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram, which has been edited for length and clarity, on pages 2 and 3, along with more images of the new Thunderbird Global Headquarters.
Have you gotten much feedback from students about the curriculum and how they feel about it? Because I know you’ve made a lot of curricular changes, and the response in terms of applications and enrollment seems very positive.
Yeah. Virtually all of our numbers are going up, whether that’s enrollment, internship rates, employment rates, incomes six months, 12 months after graduation. And so we really have been executing that very ambitious plan that I shared with you back in January with, really, a fervor. Partly because we have a great team and a lot of support from the broader ASU, but partly we really have just, I think, hit on a really nice chord of what Thunderbird can be going forward. So we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished.
So that was a big part of the transformation. One more point that I share with everyone internally and externally is that we’re doing a turnaround and a transformation. We’re about 80% through the turnaround and 50% through the transformation. The curriculum was a major part of that. So with the MGM, you know, the students that we’ve gotten really are excited about it. And I’ll give you three key portions of that.
One is that the multidisciplinary options in terms of concentration has drawn a whole range of students that wanted to have our “magical triangle”: global business, international studies, culture and language. That’s been the hallmark of Thunderbird. But these concentrations, where they can do global business, global marketing, finance, and so forth and so on — but they could also do global affairs, global entrepreneurship, digital transformation and a whole range of other ones with our sister schools at ASU — has drawn in a bunch of students. And as you know in the marketplace, a lot of corporations and others are really excited about that combination of deep technical, substantive skills with the global management leadership, business skills overlay. So that’s number one.
Number two is, we’ve really embraced this concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So all of our courses, in addition to the specific concentrations, are really advancing our students to be able to lead and manage, and be professionals in this new world of AI, Internet of Things, so forth and so on. And then third, you know, is our applied learning, which is a sort of Global Challenge Lab that we call it, six credits. It’s embedded in the program now and it’s included in the price of the program and so students don’t have to pay anything else. It’s a really exciting project with partners all around the world. It really gives students what employers want, that practical experience.
So those three have really been a great thing. I add one more. We’ve launched our 4+1 program at ASU, so students from virtually any department or school at ASU can apply in their junior year to do 12 credits in their senior year. They’re applied learning experiences in the summer, between their senior into fifth year, and they can finish the MGM in their fifth year. So that’s brought in a whole set of students that are real overachievers.
Can I ask you to talk about the new degree out of Washington, D.C., and maybe some of the other planned offerings along those lines at some other locations?
Basically we have two new degrees launching in January. The first one is the Executive Master of Global Affairs and Management in D.C. Basically it’s a one-year, 30-credit degree, January through December. It’s in partnership with ASU’s school of law, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the Watts School of Public Affairs at ASU. It’s an immersive week at the beginning in January, an immersive week at the end and then alternating weekends through the year. It’s for working professionals in the D.C. area and the Northeast. After seven courses and 21 credits of common sort of content, basically students can specialize in one of these tracks: global business, which Thunderbirds will do; marketing, accounting, global policy, which Watts will do; and global law, which Sandra Day O’Connor will do. That is launching in January and our goal in the medium term is really to have a cohort of about 20 to 25 every year. Over the years, we have had lots and lots of folks from various different types of D.C. organizations, particularly the public sector, that came to Thunderbird. And when we talked to alums and said, “What if we launched from there?” they said, “Oh if we had had that option to stay and work and do it here, I would have taken that.” So that’s one degree.
The other one is our sort of top-of-the-pyramid degree, the Executive Master’s in Global Leadership and Strategy. And it’s a one-year degree starting in January. Again, 30 credits. It’s for folks heading family businesses with global responsibilities. And it basically is delivered in six immersive eight-day sessions in six different cities around the world. We start January in Phoenix and L.A., then it goes to Nairobi in March because we have a center there, a hub there in the heart of emergent Africa. Then to Geneva in May, where we also have a center. Then to Shanghai in August, Sao Paolo in October, and then it ends up in Mumbai. In between, there’s leadership coaching, personal coaching, online content, and so forth. This is for the folks with 10, 12, 15 years of experience who are really running their family businesses and they have global responsibilities. There’s a whole flipped classroom where they’re out in the regional business environment, they’re engaging in market changes and political changes, digital policy changes, really getting a sense of different markets around the world. But again, there is this very important focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution: How are new technologies, digitization, transforming companies and governments around the world?
Artist renderings of the new building look fantastic. What do you think of how the plans look now? And what are your hopes for this nice new building?
We brought the world to Thunderbird in our heyday. Everybody came out to Glendale, that sort of global village out there in rural Arizona. That was the magic, the secret sauce in some sense, as much as anything else — that campus. For a whole host of reasons, we’ve moved to downtown Phoenix, the fastest-growing city in the country, and now we’re taking Thunderbird to the world. We’re doing that with our online programs, which we are growing dramatically with the support of the broader ASU muscle, but a big part is these regional centers of excellence around the world.
We’re practicing what we preach. We’re a global multinational business school. We want to be the first and best global multinational business school. And so this is our global headquarters, and we have our 20 centers around the world that we’re building and developing and launching. And it’s really that. It’s the heartbeat of this global network. And so when you walk into that first floor, you know, you enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
You walk into that Global Forum with a ribbon of 20 screens connected to each of those hubs around the world, and a digital globe. As you walk up the five floors, you go back in Thunderbird’s history. And every floor takes you back to our origin, all the way to the very top, which you know is a very important part of the heart and soul of Thunderbird: our Pub.
It’s a $75 million building and the city of Phoenix has contributed $13.5 million. So this is also part of our contribution to Phoenix becoming a global city. We have an incredible partnership with the previous mayor, now Congressman (Greg) Stanton, and with the current mayor, Kate Gallego. Our goal is to be a global catalyst from the local level at Phoenix, state level, Arizona, obviously in the United States, and then globally through our regional centers around the globe.
Tell me about your travels. You have been to 42 countries since becoming dean. I assume part of that’s going to some of the new global hubs? I understand you opened one recently in Jakarta.
The plans that I shared with you last January have really concretized. The goal is to have 20 of these regional Centers of Excellence around the world, as you know. We have Moscow that’s just had its 25th anniversary. We have Geneva that’s more or less 10 years old, and we have Dubai. Since I came on board we have launched Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, Nairobi, and Washington, D.C. So we went from three to nine. So certainly my travel was, in part, because of launching and then reinforcing and transforming these regional centers. Because we have a whole ramp of educational offerings that we do through these centers.
But one of the greatest, if not the greatest, assets of Thunderbird is our 45,000 alumni in 140 countries around the world. One of the great things that’s happened is, we have a complete alumni community. Our alumni have been galvanized. You know what happened — back in the day the alumni split. We had a Thunderbird Independent Alumni Association that went one direction, and we had an internal alumni association connected to the school, and all of that. TIAA had closed down, and now the chair of the board of TIAA is one of the co-chairs of the new unified alumni network. We raised $15 million from alumni this past year, which is pretty significant — certainly for Thunderbirds that’s the highest amount we’ve had perhaps in our history and certainly for decades. And it’s also the highest a dean’s ever had in their first year at ASU. So it was a banner year.
So the travel was mobilizing the alumni across the board. I’m giving you the figure of the $15 million but internships, employment, a lot of the increases we’ve had — not all of it, but a lot of it — has come through alumni engagement, mentoring of our students, helping us recruit.
We had a global reunion, which we have every two years at Thunderbird. We had it in Tokyo. It was organized by the Japanese alums that set up the Tokyo Center of Excellence. We had 500 alumni, plus or minus a few. People were just rocking up from 40 countries around the world. And it was the largest global alumni reunion outside the United States in Thunderbird history.
The degrees that Thunderbird offers, the educational pitch it makes to prospective students, is about being “future ready.” What does that phrase mean to you?
That’s the whole point, right? These are degrees that help our undergraduates, because we do have undergraduate programs as you know, all the way to our executive programs. And not just the degree programs, because we have our executive education short courses too. All of it has been to prepare future ready leaders and managers. I will say one other thing, in terms of launching new programs, in addition to the two I mentioned, in a year and a half we’ll launch another program in Los Angeles. ASU has bought the Herald Examiner Building, and we’re going to have space in there and so we’re going to launch a master of global management in the creative industries.
That’s the full plan, basically, this curriculum transformation, taking Thunderbird to the world. I haven’t mentioned a lot about executive education, but that’s really completely turned around, and we’re doing great on that front. And this headquarters, it’s kind of that symbol — sort of the touchstone for the next 75 years. This is the next 75 years, right? In fact, we’ll open it in April 2021, when we have our 75th anniversary, and we will welcome the first students in the building in August.
How much does Thunderbird collaborate with ASU’s Carey School? You share a campus, so you must partner a lot, right?
Absolutely. Amy Hillman, the dean there, and I are really close friends and collaborators. So number one, in our undergraduate program, a lot of our undergrad students end up either joint majoring in, or taking certificates in, logistics or supply chain. Their students take certificates and courses with us. And so those undergrad students out there really benefit from both schools being sort of co-located.
Number two is executive education. We effectively run executive education, not just for ourselves, but for all of ASU. So we draw on faculty from all schools including Carey, and we support and create these really great exec programs that include Thunderbird faculty and Carey faculty all the time. I’ll just give you one example. We’re launching a major new customized master of global management in the healthcare industry with Dignity Health Global. It’s a exclusive partnership with Dignity Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare provider in the world. It’s 90-95% online. And then there’s a practicum that’s done through the hospitals and clinics that they run. That program is a joint program between the ASU College of Health Solutions, the College of Nursing, the Carey School, and Thunderbird, but we are basically the ones that have organized that and do the backend for it. But in terms of the content and delivery, it’s a complete collaboration including Carey.
And then a third example is even in our master’s program, the MGM, there are Carey concentrations, so our students can take courses from Carey, can do concentrations in our core MGM. So our connection with the Carey School is very deep, very deep.