Q&A with Peter Tufano, Dean of Saïd, Oxford

Oxford Said Dean

At 18, the MBA program at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School is barely old enough to buy a pint of Guinness, but that hasn’t stopped its dean, Peter Tufano, from hatching some ambitious plans for the school. Saïd is Tufano’s first deanship, but he’s been practicing for a while now, having spent 22 years on the faculty of Harvard Business School – the last few as senior associate dean hatching the same ideas, in broad strokes, that he is now putting in practice at Saïd. TopMBA.com editor-in-chief Louis Lavelle met recently with Tufano in his Oxford office to discuss the progress he’s made so far, and the changes still to come.

You became dean in July 2011, roughly three years ago. I thought a good way to start off would be to chat about what you hoped to accomplish coming in, what you have accomplished, and what’s still on your giant ‘to do’ list.

I had a fairly clear notion coming in what the latent strengths of the school were. Really what we’ve done in the last three years is to accentuate those strengths. At the core of it is an observation that’s not just true here, which is that business schools that separate themselves from their universities…are worse off because of it. You can deliver a far better education if you work closely with the university rather than if you try to turn your back on it.

Tell me about the Oxford 1+1 MBA.

It is incredibly simple but it works. It allows you to combine an MBA (if you’re extraordinarily good) with almost anything else around the university. This is a blatant rip-off of the Rhodes Scholars program – they stitch together two master’s programs at Oxford. When I first arrived I was seeing Rhodes Scholars stitching together other programs with an MBA and seemed to be enjoying it a great deal. What 1+1 does is give the experience of a Rhodes Scholar to extraordinary students. They have to get through two admissions screens. Acceptance rates are low but people are creating these remarkably customized two-year experiences. If they want to change educational systems, they know they need to know something about education, but they know that’s not going to make them change agents. They know they need some business skills, but that’s not going to do it either. Typically they have something in their gut that they’re excited about doing and they can’t find anywhere else to do it.

How does GOTO – Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford – fit into this?

GOTO is a commitment by the school that we would work through this set of big issues, which are both threats and opportunities. The expertise would come from around the university and the handoff to us is that we would figure out the business implications. Let me make that concrete for you. Let’s take demography. On a daily basis, life expectancy increases by five hours. We’re blessed [at Oxford] because we have demographers and gerontologists and other kinds of folks around the university who know all that stuff. The first thing we do is we put that together. We package it on a digital platform. The students go into tutorials at this point, so in small groups they write papers, they do projects. All those projects are about what are the implications for business. We start at the high level, then an industry, then a specific business. The students don’t become experts in demography, but they know enough about it that it can start this process. … We do one topic at a time: demography, big data, water scarcity. How are we able to do it? Because we’re embedded [in the university].

Your core MBA program has undergone some changes as well, including a new three-week introductory program designed to get students focused on these big global issues as well as one-on-one sessions with executive coaches. It’s also been reorganized into three new integrative modules. Tell me about those.

There’s one on what we call the global rules of the game. Our school’s population, much like other European schools, is such that everybody is a minority. We have this global student body that’s going to end up doing business all across the world. It strikes me that if you don’t understand the rules you can’t play the game. The rules are written rules, like laws and regulations, but there are also unwritten rules like social norms. This is not an etiquette course about how to behave in different countries, but sensitizing students to the fact that there are rules, they differ by country and culture, and they have to at least be aware of the playbook if not the specific rules.

The second theme is around responsibility. Everybody talks about leadership and responsibility. We’re pretty far out when it comes to that set of issues. Economic theories don’t really drive what responsibility is all about [and] if we were a faith-based school that would drive it but we’re not. So what exactly is this basis upon which we’re telling students they should be responsible? Obviously that’s where being able to draw on philosophy and history, and ethics [is helpful]. That broad grounding across the university will help us engage them in a discussion.

The third one is around entrepreneurship, and that’s maybe not so new. But it’s not about starting firms, It’s really about a way of thinking. This school for at least 10 years has had entrepreneurship as a mandatory part of the curriculum but what we’re doing is rethinking what that means. Students also do strategic consulting projects that take them away from this campus all across the world to do projects with real companies. They also do a capstone project at the end of 12 months.

I understand you recently made a pretty radical change in how MBAs are graded at Saïd.

The business school is part of Oxford and Oxford, as a university, is completely respectful of fairness. Fairness means, for example, in grading that in order to be sure there’s no bias, everything has to be double-blind graded. What that means is that you can’t grade class participation. We worked for two years to convince the university that while fairness is an important principal, so is the concept of making people responsible for that part of their learning, so we now do that. That’s not a news story but it shows the degree to which the university has worked with us in these last three years and they’re working with us still to make this a vibrant, and very much Oxford-based business school.

What made them cave?

There are lots of studies that show you improve learning this way. There are lots of experiences of other schools; a bunch of us come from other schools where we’ve had direct experience of this. [We also put] a lot of care into how we’re rolling it out to make sure we’re not biased against people who might not otherwise be comfortable with participation. There’s a lot of stuff that we did and we’re doing.

Your former colleague, the Harvard Business School management guru Michael Porter, taught that for a business to thrive it has to find its ‘unfair competitive advantage’. What’s yours?

Our unfair competitive advantage is that we’re here and that we’re part of the university. All our MBAs have membership in the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union is a remarkable institution. Yeah, we bring great speakers here [to the business school]; we’ve had former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer here, we had Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman. But the university has tons more. And we don’t want to discourage that.


Another example is alumni. Our alumni association is not just alumni from the business school. It’s alumni of any Oxford program who does business. It means that if you go to an Oxford Business Network chapter meeting – we have 23 chapters around the world – you will find people who never went to the business school, but are business people who studied history or whatever it might be. That’s a good thing for us.

Finally, what we have – the secret sauce that I can’t create anywhere – is the collegiate system. I am a member of an Oxford college called Balliol College. A number of prime ministers went to Balliol, members of Parliament; Adam Smith went to Balliol. There are two faculty members from the business school at Balliol; I have two MBAs there. In total I probably have 20 students across all programs at Balliol. It is natural when I walk into Balliol that I’m interacting with people from across the university. That’s just the norm. [At Harvard Business School] I can assure you that you can spend, as a faculty member or a student, all of your time there and almost never interact with someone from the rest of the university.

You have two more years left in your term as dean. What can we expect?

When we went to school what were the things people did outside the classroom? They did sports. They did arts. They did government-related stuff. They did some service stuff. Some did religious stuff. The other thing that’s firmly taken its place in that set of activities is entrepreneurship. There are 10,000 members of Oxford Entrepreneurs [a student society]. In the way that I spent 70 hours a week working on the student newspaper young people today spend inordinate amounts of time working on ventures. So you want to know where I’m going? It’s a good chance that’s one of the things you‘ll see more of here.

Another priority is continuing to mindfully grow the international composition of our class – we will get to 10% from Africa – and some other things. For example, we are a pretty finance-heavy school. We have that in our MBA program, we have a master’s in financial economics program, and we have a master’s of law and finance program… Obviously, strengthening that [is a priority].

The other thing we need to make more progress on is gender balance. We were in the mid to high 20s over the last few years, and this year we made a commitment, and I think we’re at 33% now. I think we can do better.

We are going to increase the class size [for the MBA program] next year from 240 to 320. The question I ask myself is: are there 320 outstanding people who want this experience? You bet. Absolutely.

In your early days as dean, you also spoke optimistically about expanding the size of the program, but in 2012-13 full-time MBA enrollment shrunk by 23%. What happened, and what’s different this time

That one year I think we took our eye off the ball. I was new. I wasn’t focused on it. I take full blame for it. Oxford has a way of assuming people will just come. It’s a field of dreams: build it and they will come. Clearly as you know that’s not true. We realized we have to tell the world who we are. We have to make a big deal about telling the world who we are.


When I took this job I went through an interview and I explained that to get the school where it needed to be would take some time. What I can say is that three years in we’re on the right path.

Written by Louis Lavelle

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