Commentary: This Outgoing Dean Gets An A-Plus

Feldberg tapped Wall Street's expertise -- and wallets -- for Columbia's B-School

Mention Columbia Business School and Wall Street nearly always comes to mind. The school's links to New York City's elite downtown financial firms are legendary -- more than 50% of the B-school's MBA grads secure finance jobs. Among Columbia's active -- and check-writing -- alumni are the likes of Henry Kravis, Sallie Krawcheck, and Mario Gabelli. The school's faculty boasts former Presidential advisers and Nobel prize winners. And Columbia's executive programs consistently win the praise of the world's biggest companies.

With a résumé like that, it's hard to recall the bad old days in the 1980s when mediocre admissions standards, a crumbling building, and an also-ran reputation in the business and academic worlds had driven away alumni support. A paltry $16 million endowment reinforced the decline. Faculty infighting was rampant.

That was all before Meyer Feldberg. The debonair, high-energy South African took over as dean in 1989 and reshaped the school over the next 15 years. Now, at 62, he's retiring, leaving the impressive turnaround as his legacy. All along, it was Feldberg's goal to create the "quintessential business school in the quintessential business city." On this, he never backed down.

It was a classic case of strong leadership. He was able to inspire others to follow and -- better yet -- contribute to the school. He wrangled support from alums who helped rebuild the school's reputation and expand its endowment to $280 million -- a more than sixteenfold increase. "Meyer had the vision and the energy and capability to execute [it]," says Russell L. Carson, a 1967 grad who is a partner in private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe and a member of the school's board. Yet his influence went beyond Columbia's gates; deans across the B-school world have since followed his lead in globalizing curriculum and forging international partnerships.

Feldberg, who's known for his signature suspenders, colorful shirts and ties, and a gift for persuasion isn't shy about taking his share of credit. It's true, he says, that "the faculty, students, alumni, and the board feel great about Columbia Business School now. But a lot of things had to happen first." Soon after he arrived, Feldberg made three decisions that, at the time, seemed risky -- even downright foolish -- but that would ultimately shape the character and success of the school.

First, long before it was faddish, Feldberg decided to go global. After all, he had come from halfway around the world and had seen the dangers that arise when a country is cut off from the international community. So he set about to recraft the school's curriculum, push faculty research beyond U.S. borders, and reshape the student body into a more cosmopolitan, internationally focused group. All the while he was wooing back alums in international trade, like Liz Claiborne Inc.'s (LIZ ) then-chief executive, Jerome Chazen, who could appreciate the message -- and gave Feldberg his first big gift, $10 million, to get the effort going. Today most students in the MBA program speak two or more languages and have lived or worked abroad. There are 25 joint programs with international schools, including an Executive MBA program with London Business School.

Pledging Allegiance

Feldberg's next big gamble was to hitch Columbia's academic and intellectual wagon to the field of finance. Back then, investment banks barely noticed Columbia, instead plucking grads from Harvard University and the University of Chicago. But Feldberg insisted that, despite a recession that was hitting the sector hard, finance was the most global of all industries -- and the easy commute from Wall Street to 116th Street made Columbia a natural.

Then Feldberg made another bold move: Just weeks after the notorious Central Park Jogger incident in 1990, he declared Columbia's allegiance to New York City. "People really thought I was nuts then," he says. "The New York economy was in the toilet, there was crack all around, people were getting shot in the streets and raped in the parks." Even in the face of board pressure that the school decamp for a northern suburb, Feldberg toughed it out and "got lucky," he says. Soon after, the city rebounded and Wall Street's money engine went into overdrive. Top-notch professors, like economist and Nobel winner Joseph E. Stiglitz, joined the faculty. What's more, even as the city faced some downs -- particularly the devastation after September 11 and the aftermath of numerous Wall Street scandals -- Columbia has managed to keep an even keel.

For Columbia's new dean, R. Glenn Hubbard, there are still plenty of challenges, from finding more space -- the school is already outgrowing its new building -- to teaching global business in a more anxious world. Lucky for him, Feldberg laid a solid foundation.

By Jennifer Merritt

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.