How B-Schools Are Facing Terror

While international MBA programs have seen little effect on enrollment, that doesn't mean the threat is being ignored

By Francesca Di Meglio

Efstathios Triphyllis, a student at the one-year International MBA Program at Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, is no stranger to terrorism. Growing up in Greece and Britain, Triphyllis remembers several Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs going off near his family's home in London's Portman Square. Some of the assassinations by the Greek November 17 terrorist group in the 1980s took place near his high school in Athens. And his wife, Laura Mamakos, an opera singer, was in New York on 9/11.

But Triphyllis says that none of this has stopped him from living life to the fullest and pursuing his dreams. He and his wife are expecting their first child in January and are planning to make Madrid -- the site of deadly al Qaeda bombings just 16 months ago -- their permanent home.


 In 2004, more than 1,900 people from around the world were killed and about 6,704 injured in terrorist attacks by various militant and fundamentalist groups, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va. Despite these statistics, which have been on the rise over the last few years, most B-school students and educators, many of whom live or work in the urban centers that have been targeted, echo Triphyllis' resolve.

In other words, it's business as usual for MBA programs. Domestic and foreign B-schools contacted by BusinessWeek Online following recent attacks in London and Egypt say no students have contacted admissions departments with security concerns. And so far, none of the schools has reported lower enrollment figures sparked by the recent events. Application numbers have been down across the board for some time now, but experts agree that the decline is mostly a byproduct of a slower economy and recent business scandals.

Even in London, most MBA students have been unfazed by fear. "The reaction of both current and admitted students has been one of mutual concern and support," says Julia Tyler, Director of the London Business School's MBA program, which isn't far from the sites of the most recent terrorist attacks on the city's public transportation system. "The admitted students have shown no indication to date of any concern over their future studies at the school and have only expressed enthusiasm for beginning their new experiences in London and London Business School."


  Things were different just a few years ago, at least in the U.S. Students, and especially the parents of undergraduates, were far more worried after 9/11 because it was the first time Americans felt vulnerable, says Monica Gray, assistant dean and director of MBA Admissions at the Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

For years before 2001, this reality was already understood by Europeans, who had been facing terrorism in the form of radicals -- from the Basque extremists in Spain to the Red Brigade in Italy. Now, for better or worse, the whole world seems to be on the same page. Everyone thinks of terrorism as not "if" but "when." This change of thinking requires a change in strategy. And that applies to B-schools, too.

Part of the reason that students are less concerned now is that schools have stepped up security over the last few years. As potential terror targets, universities continue to take several precautions -- from increasing the number of security cameras and guards to compiling lists of student cell-phone numbers for easy contact in the case of an emergency.


 Most B-schools -- from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University to IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Barcelona -- were quick to account for students in London following the attacks. Administrators at most schools provide all members of the community with updates and communication through Web sites or e-mail when disaster strikes.

The idea is to keep everyone informed, and everything running as smoothly as possible. Vikash Gupta, a rising second-year student at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is interning this summer at Booz Allen Hamilton in London. He says that things got back to normal fairly quickly after the July 7 bombings by Muslim radicals of three subways and one bus, and that his day was virtually uninterrupted when terrorists tried another attack on July 21. He received word via the school's administration and a student club that everyone from Tepper was safe.

"We cannot stop our lives because of some fanatics in the street," says Gupta. "This will only encourage them and help achieve what they want -- disruption."


  Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad are hoping that the terrorists are the ones who get disrupted. They have asked all citizens to be more vigilant -- and that's just what members of the Empresa community are doing. The school is now more aware -- and more careful -- about who comes in and out of buildings, says David Bach, academic director of the International MBA Program.

In honor of the one-year anniversary of the deadly Madrid subway bombings, Empresa participated in the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism, & Security, a recent meeting of world leaders in Madrid to come up with counterterrorism strategies. A number of Empresa students attended events, which featured important figures like U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Since then, the school has hosted other relevant forums.

Times have rapidly changed. "What has created a greater feeling of insecurity, and a vicious circle, is the response to terrorism and some foreign policy decisions, including the invasion of Iraq," says Triphyllis. "That's why I have to admit that I feel more insecure about visiting London and New York. But having said that, I will not stop traveling to those places. I will take the simple precaution of avoiding public transportation and landmark buildings."


 Traveling is a prerequisite for players in the global market. Today's MBAs are going to have to interact with their counterparts around the world, perhaps, more than any other generation of businesspeople -- even if the threat of terrorism prevails. "Our [MBA] students conduct themselves as business leaders no matter what.... Now, there's an acceptance that the landscape of the world is changing," says Gray.

Bach says that terrorism-related issues are increasingly becoming part of classroom discussions. He adds that future managers will have to understand the motivation behind the terrorist acts and how the ensuing chaos affects the bottom line. It's the new price one must pay to become a true leader. But that hardly sounds like business as usual.

Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Fort Lee, N.J.

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