Keeping the Bar High at BiMBA

We're not just cranking out financial analysts, says Associate Dean Michael Furst. We want to educate the whole person

Every September, about 500 of China's best and brightest find their way to the campus of Beijing University to become part of one of the most prestigious MBA programs in the country. The Beijing International MBA, known simply as BiMBA, is operated by a consortium of American Jesuit business schools, including Fordham University's Graduate School of Business Administration, which awards the degree. Only six years old, the program inspires deep devotion among students, drawing nearly 1,000 alumni for its end-of-year party.

BusinessWeek B-schools editor Louis Lavelle spoke recently with Michael Furst, associate dean for institutional development at BiMBA and a management professor at the program, about what makes BiMBA tick. The following are edited excerpts from their conversation.

What makes BiMBA unique?

Executive MBA aside, everybody has to take the GMAT, and the average score is somewhere around 640, which makes us fairly competitive, even if you take us to North America. All of the faculty are either faculty at the China Center for Economic Research [CCER] or one of the consortium schools. All the faculty at the CCER are foreign PhDs, mostly North American, some European, and one or two from Japan. These are people whose focus on academic quality is the same as you would find at major universities anywhere in the world. That sets us apart from many Chinese programs.

How do you explain the sense of school spirit that seems to pervade this place?

When I was in Shanghai a few months ago doing interviews with prospective students, one guy said going to business school is sort of like going to the bank: You go up to the teller window; you sit in class for a while; you take your courses; and when you're finished, you get a degree, and you go on with your life.

BiMBA seems a little bit different. [Students] say that coming here is transformative; It really made a difference in their lives. Part of it is the structure of the program. You can't just, at the beginning of the semester, decide which courses you're going to sign up for. Students go through with their cohort from beginning to end: They march through together.

At entrance, we take every group -- EMBA, part-time, full-time -- off on some kind of trip: to the grasslands to go horseback riding, mountain climbing. Last September, I went with the EMBA group hiking in the Gobi Desert. [The purpose is] to mold them into some kind of a group, and build some kind of group cohesiveness. And it worked.

What's the main reason students come here as opposed to other Chinese B-schools?

The main thing we use as a selling point -- the main focus -- is high standards. We are really uncompromising on that. When you come here you learn something, and you get the same kind of academic excellence as you would expect in an MBA program in the U.S. It's our intention to raise the bar as high as we can.

That's one reason why we stay small. We're looking at the whole person. We're not just cranking out financial analysts. We want to educate the whole person. We have a big emphasis on leadership and management and corporate governance.

We try to instill in people a responsibility that goes beyond their career and their job and the company they work for -- they should give something back to their community. We have groups of students and alumni who do things like work with less-privileged students and tutor them to get them up to speed. There are things like that that are important.

Many Chinese MBA students seem to prefer lectures to other teaching methods. As a professor, how do you engage students in the lesson?

What I tend to do is, I break them into groups and have them work on assignments and report back in. When they do that, they're happy to get up in front of the class. I [also] use guest lecturers -- venture capitalists, entrepreneurs.

The biggest problem we have is faculty members who just lecture at students and don't get feedback from them, don't find out if that's what students want to hear. If someone comes in to teach a [human resources] class and starts talking about diversity and affirmative action -- [that's] an important topic if you're in the U.S., but here it's somewhat irrelevant.

Much has been made of the fact that the MBA's value in China is declining. Is that true?

The story of the MBA not being as valuable as everyone thought is sort of a nonstory. It was never that valuable. [In China], the market values them more or less as it should. If you go to XYZ University [for an undergraduate degree], and if you get a job afterward, if you're lucky you get 2,500 to 3,000 renminbi [yuan] a month.

For some of the MBA programs, the MBA premium is maybe is 1,000 renminbi a month, or maybe not -- maybe it means you just get a job. The top MBA schools, though, command a much higher premium. Is our average salary the same as you get at the top B-schools in the U.S.? No, of course not. But our students can usually, on average, command about 20,000 renminbi a month. That's a very good salary.

What are recruiters looking for at BiMBA?

We don't just have people who sit at their desk crunching numbers and doing spreadsheet analysis...[they] have some kind of street sense as well. If you talk to the top investment banking firms, the top consulting firms, they're looking for students who can think on their feet, and talk to senior management at their client [companies], and not look like a kid who's totally ignorant and coming up with stupid ideas. They look for it here.

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