When Meyer Feldberg steps down as dean of Columbia Business School at the end of June, he'll leave behind a legacy of success. In the first half of his 15-year tenure, Feldberg managed to take the school from also-ran status to a powerhouse that educates international business leaders and consistently ranks in BusinessWeek's Top 10 MBA and executive programs.
It took a lot of work -- and a few bold moves -- for Feldberg, himself a Columbia alum, to transform the school. He recently sat down with BusinessWeek B-Schools Editor Jennifer Merritt to talk about the turnaround. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow:
Q: What did you find when you arrived at Columbia Business School in 1989?
A: The school was suffering from extraordinarily low self-esteem, low morale, disenchantment among the faculty and students, unengaged alums, and unenthusiastic recruiters. It was just an unhappy place.... There was faculty infighting and a lot of unhappiness.
About 47% of applicants were accepted in my first year. For someone like me, with an enormous amount of energy and passion, it was a great environment to take on.
Q: That doesn't sound anything like the Columbia Business School of the last decade. What did you do first to change the school?
A: You can't do just one thing, you've got to be doing everything. We didn't have the resources to do everything, so I had to make the biggest decision -- what to do first.
My first decision was that the school had to move faster [to have] a more global curriculum, student body, and faculty. My staff started developing a list of 30 to 50 important alumni, and I went to meet them all [to discuss the changes]. Initially, I was met with curiosity -- but not much confidence that much would happen.
Q: But early on you got a substantial gift from one of those alums, Jerome Chazen, then CEO of Liz Claiborne (LIZ). How did that come about?
A: When he asked me about my vision for Columbia, I told him about my global ideas, and that was his vision too. Within two to three months, he made a gift of $10 million. That nearly doubled our endowment [of $16 million]. That was a transforming gift for the school.
[Nowadays,] Chazen says he got more out of the school than he gave. I used the money to increase our visibility around the world, to update curriculum and class materials. We started to favor people with international, cosmopolitan, or global backgrounds in admissions.
Q: Once you set the wheels in motion on making the school more global, what did you do next?
A: I had to pick one academic and intellectual area in which I would first invest. I decided on finance because of our geographic location, the [proximity to] recruiters, and because it's the most global of all industries, and New York is the most global city.
I also started going out to meet with recruiters to get buy-in for our new curriculum, to tell them that we were going to become a powerhouse.
Q: With all the rapid change -- the globalization of the school, the attention to finance -- were professors upset?
A: Some colleagues on the faculty were outraged and felt I was undermining the other disciplines. I had to tough it out, and I lucked out with the finance boom. As the city came out of recession [in the early 1990s], we had already turned the corner.
Q: Speaking of New York City, you've always called it Columbia's "greatest advantage." Was it always that way?
A: In 1990, when I said that New York City would be our single greatest resource, people thought I was nuts. New York is our greatest advantage. It will go through ups and downs. When I arrived, it was a bad place to be. But it's more global, more diverse than any city in the world.
International students, the first question they would ask was "Is it safe enough there? Aren't people getting murdered outside the gates?" In 1991, we actually did a survey on whether or not to physically move the school to Westchester County. A lot of the board members were for it. Concentrating on New York City was a big call -- back then, there was a big debate, and the chair of the board even thought we should move.
Q: You made a lot of moves that, back then, seemed awfully risky, perhaps even foolish. How did you face down the opposition?
A: You have to keep executing. You get no points for ideas unless people see them happening. When I arrived, this building [Uris Hall] was falling apart. There were cockroaches everywhere, rats all around, it was dirty, and there was no maintenance going on. So I moved my desk into the main lobby, and I sat there four or five hours a day. People came by to tell me what wasn't working, and I would make a decision right then and there, and give them money to go fix it.
I empowered groups of faculty, students, and administrators, and that captured people's imaginations and showed I was serious. It wasn't fun. People were basically coming and beating up on me. So I formed the Dean's Fix-It Committee. We set up a board in the lobby, and when something was wrong, it would be written on a card and put on the board. When it was fixed, we would write the word "fixed" across it and the date. People saw improvements happening in front of their eyes. I was lucky, people could physically see the fixes.
Q: With so much to do, how did you manage it all -- not get overwhelmed or pushed to change your decisions on global focus, finance, and New York?
A: I never allow myself to have more than five priorities. And I never allowed myself to get talked into options and alternatives that were not a part of those priorities. I never got burnt out. I learned from my mother: Don't agonize over things, just move on, just keep at it, and make a decision.