Columbia B School Makes The A List

Meyer Feldberg's charm and connections spur a turnaround

It's early on a Sunday evening, and Meyer Feldberg is happily ensconced in his Manhattan flat. Spending a cozy night with a good book? Hardly. The dean of Columbia Business School is hard at work--entertaining. Tonight, he's hosting a reception for the school's 74-member board of overseers, a group of high-wattage executives that includes Mario J. Gabelli, Henry R. Kravis, and Benjamin M. Rosen, chairman of Compaq Computer Corp.

While the business titans sip cocktails and admire the paintings of Feldberg's wife, Barbara, the native South African, 56, works the crowd confidently. A dapper dresser whose flashy cufflinks, suspenders, and tie stand out in a sea of banker blues and grays, he wins a promise to teach a course here, a gift toward a new building there. He cajoles, flatters, and prods the board members into donating more time and money than they ever intended. "I think Meyer Feldberg can do anything," says Raymond G. Viault, vice-chairman of General Mills Inc. and a B-school board member.

LONG TERM. In a world where B-school deanships are revolving doors, Feldberg is an anomaly. Now in his ninth year, he has pushed Columbia from an organization adrift to a school whose selectivity and reputation have improved dramatically--and he has invigorated the school's once passive alumni in the process. In BUSINESS WEEK's ranking of the top 20 business schools, Columbia vaulted from No.14 in 1988 to No.6 in 1996, the most recent ranking. From 1993 to 1998, applications surged 81%--compared with 56% for the University of Michigan Business School and 36% for Harvard Business School. And while the MBA is hot everywhere, Columbia's shift has been striking: Fully 47% of applicants were admitted in 1992, but just 13% made it in 1997. The newfound energy--along with flush economic times--has boosted the endowment to $110 million, up from $16 million in 1989.

In part, Columbia's renaissance has mirrored New York's. Columbia "is the quintessential business school in the quintessential city," says Feldberg. "Crossing the street at Broadway and 116th Street is part of your education." So, too, have the school's fortunes risen with Wall Street's. Columbia has become a favorite recruiting haunt of investment banks, thanks to a strong finance department and Feldberg's knack for exploiting his surroundings, bringing the likes of Kravis, Gabelli, and Walter V. Shipley, chairman of Chase Manhattan Corp., to mingle with students.

TIGHT QUARTERS. It's a heady atmosphere. Feldberg says that while under 40% of entering students say they'll concentrate in finance, over half of this year's graduating class has taken jobs in the area. In this raging bull market, the uptown/downtown link is a distinct asset. But should the market tumble, worry some Columbia board members and alumni, it could quickly become a liability. Warns Viault: "The school's gravitational pull [toward Wall Street] is too strong and should be resisted."

Times were not always so flush. In 1994, stuck in overcrowded, decrepit Uris Hall when rivals were moving into glamorous new homes, Feldberg pulled out the stops. He threatened to move the school to the suburbs if the university didn't let it join with the law school to put up a new building on the site of an old post office. To prove he could raise the cash, Feldberg, with Kravis' help, held a meeting of 12 prominent graduates, including Leon G. Cooperman, chairman of Omega Advisors Inc., and Gabelli. Feldberg turned on the charm. Within three days, he had $12 million committed, and the university soon approved the project. The $42 million building--jokingly called Quintessence Hall or House of Meyer in the student newspaper--will open this fall.

Perhaps because Feldberg himself was born abroad, he has made the school a magnet for students interested in a global education. Columbia was one of the first B-schools to weave international issues throughout the curriculum, thanks in part to a $10 million gift in 1991 from Jerome A. Chazen, then head of Liz Claiborne Inc. Before international cases became trendy elsewhere, the school offered exchange programs and gave language courses.

Feldberg has followed through on the admissions side as well: 30% of the students are from abroad, and 80% are fluent in other languages. (China is the largest feeder.) Recruiters are pleased. "The quality of MBAs at Columbia has improved," says Richard B. Fisher, chairman of the executive committee at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. "We find more and more people we want to hire."

PERSONAL TOUCH. Feldberg brings the same competitive zeal to his job that he showed as a world-ranked swimmer in South Africa. He loves to compare the energy of Columbia to rivals such as Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business Administration, poking fun at its remote campus in rural New Hampshire. Before Columbia, he served as dean at Tulane University's B-school and as president of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Outsiders admire Feldberg's talent for building a personal relationship with contributors. "Besides formal meetings," says Compaq's Rosen, "he meets with us all individually. In turn, everyone enjoys serving. It's not just window-dressing." Feldberg sends handwritten notes in the era of E-mail, scrawling a memo in fat blue marker when a board member's child gets married or a professor wins an award. "It's the larger-than-life signature in the thicker-than-life pen," says Jace Schinderman, the B-school's associate dean for special projects.

Feldberg also reminds headhunters that the recruiting process is a two-way street. In return for Columbia's best and brightest, he expects not only a check but also a guest lecture or a semester-long course. "He's shameless," laughs Jerry I. Speyer, chief executive of Tishman Speyer Properties. "His enthusiasm is infectious." Morgan Stanley's Fisher is a Harvard graduate, but he will nonetheless show up at Columbia to speak next year and has helped co-workers raise $750,500 for an amphitheater in the new building.

CATCHUP. Feldberg's social flurry makes some wonder if he is neglecting his students. Feldberg admits that he spends less time at Uris Hall than he did in the early 1990s, when he sat in the school's deli with his bagel and heard a litany of student complaints. Says Saul D. Goodman, vice-president at Evercore Partners and a member of the Class of 1994: "I could see a student going to Columbia, having a great experience, and never having seen him. But it's not as if you need to, because everything's kind of O.K."

That's partly because Feldberg has a strong team, led by Vice-Dean for Students Safwan M. Masri. But he still holds office hours and hosts student breakfasts. "When certain things happen," says recent graduate Erin Leixner, "he likes to be around." When the stock market fell last year, he met with students to ease concerns.

For all of Feldberg's goodwill, there are still many issues to tackle. Despite the new building, space remains a problem. Some students complain that the school's teaching quality is uneven, even with a program to hire new faculty. The finance focus makes Columbia vulnerable to placement problems should the market tank. And as the caliber of students rises, so do expectations--keeping the pressure on the dean.

Feldberg is trying to build up the school's status in other sectors such as media, entrepreneurship, and real estate. Yet many students feel the school has a way to go. "For new media, it has definitely been a struggle," says Michelle S. Nasir, a recent graduate. "They do offer some good classes, but not enough." Few, however, doubt that Feldberg will do what it takes to keep his students at the forefront of recruiters' minds. "I have spent my career studying senior executives," says Donald C. Hambrick, a tenured management professor, "and I would rate him up there among the best." The biggest risk may be that recruiters come and steal away Feldberg himself.

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