Real Humans of MBA Admissions: Haas Dean Rich Lyons
What’s the best thing you read/watched/listened to recently? This is a recency effect, but this morning I watched a video that I loved and I sent it to my senior team. It was of Randall Stevenson, the CEO of AT&T, talking about conversations around race that we are not having and need to have. It is really terrific. That got me.
When you are introduced as the dean of Haas, what makes you feel the most pride? At the end of the day—I think any dean would answer this way—what does your school represent? What does it stand for? Does your school stand for something you are proud of? The top schools are all remarkable schools—we have all produced remarkable alumni, we all have lots of successes to point to. But when we think about the values that define the institution—what is the identity of the institution in terms of the values and how are those values different? Lucy Kellaway had this wonderful article in the Financial Times that was about just how similar corporate core values actually are. That we could write down “confidence without attitude” and really believe it—and never compromise on it in admissions no matter what an applicant’s GMAT is—makes me proud. “But it’s not going to help you in the rankings to not let that person in,” I can hear people saying. But this is the school we are. We have to play it straight.
At the end of the day it is the values that Berkeley represents—and those four defining principles are an important part of that—but it’s bigger than that. It’s also because Berkeley is public and we compete with private institutions. I think a lot of our faculty and staff are here because being public means something to them.
What role do you see graduate management education playing amid the rising nationalism and backlash against globalization we are seeing here and abroad? I am an international economist, and there isn’t an economist on the planet who would say that international trade is good for everybody. To the question of whether international trade is a good thing, most every economist would say yes. But we’ve always known there are losers in international trade, and they tend to be concentrated. A factory goes down, jobs get lost, there is a quite concentrated downside for certain people, and the gains from trade are quite distributed.
When globalization is being contested—when someone says we are going to prevent the job loss that trade is creating—you have to say wait a minute. The evidence says that technology and innovation are disrupting many more jobs than international trade, and when you look at international trade and some of the jobs that have been lost because of international trade, here’s what the social science research says. If you try to gunk up trade to try to protect jobs, it has this cost. The net cost is enormous. If what you want to do is protect jobs, there are much more efficient ways to protect jobs than stopping international trade, much better policy levers.
These are things that science—in this case, social science—speaks to. This is evidence-based—and there’s a lot of evidence. People can have different preferences about policy, and nobody can stand up and say this is wrong or this is right. But where we can speak, even on very controversial issues, and say this is what the science says, we need to. Science speaks to climate change. It does, and universities need to weigh in on that. And science speaks to international trade.
As business schools we have to recognize that reasonable people can disagree on many points—but on this, the fact base is there. There is one fact base. There are not many alternative fact bases. That’s where we have to draw sharp lines while at the same time realizing that people can radically disagree on what the right policy role is.
What is the one thing about Haas that you wish more applicants knew about? Perhaps an unsung virtue? I wish they could come here—I wish they could see it and feel it and hear it and interact with the students. Because I think it is human nature to to think all the talk about core values is just talk. But when people come here they realize this is really true, this is really here. I wish they could just ask current students, “Is this stuff real or just fiction marketing?”
And it may not even be to their taste, right? Somebody could look at “beyond yourself” or “question the status quo”—two of our defining principles—and say, “Really interesting but that’s not where I am in terms of the top-level things that I value in my life.” So people can select away from it—but I would like them to experience the school enough to know that it is real.
The Haas class size is going to be growing and you have a great new building coming. Do you have any ambivalence about that growth? No, I don’t actually. The intimacy of the class is really an important part of what Haas is about—but at 250 students, which is where we have been forever, we are less than a third the size of Harvard, we are a third the size of Wharton. We are tiny. Even Tuck has gotten much bigger than we are. We are a gross outlier.
Part of the reputation of the school is a function of its scale, and there are times where you are just not at the right reputational scale. You’re too small. It’s a super intimate experience—there’s no question about that—but target companies want to go to a place where there are enough people graduating that they can send a team of recruiters, for example. If you are too small you are below the threshold.
We are not going to go from 250 in a class to 600. We are going to go from 250 to 350 over a few years. And we’re not going to jump even to 350 right away. We just moved to 280, and we’ll go up a little bit the next year, and 350 might be a resting point. But the cost in terms of reduced intimacy will be easily offset by positive reputation effects.
What do you lose sleep over with regard to your role as dean? You are always trying to experiment in various ways. Your job as a dean is to place the right bets, and there are 20 bets you can place in any given academic year. You might place five of them. So you want to make sure that you are experimenting in the right ways, whether it’s digital education or a new career management tool or changed admissions or launching a new joint degree with engineering—which is something we plan to do.
The organization only has so much bandwidth no matter what the idea flow is. I tend to be an idea person. I spray out ideas and people think, “Geez, how are we going to do all that?” I constantly have to check myself and say, “Okay, these are the three things we need to get going this year.” I guess it all goes back to that prioritization point that you asked me about earlier.