Developing SMU into an Internationally recognized University
I remember that I had a conversation with Ho Kwon Ping, fairly late in the process that we were interacting with each other and where I basically said, and I paraphrase it a bit, I don’t know the exact words of the conversation anymore, but what I basically said, I don’t understand why you recruit me because SMU is an undergraduate university serving Singapore, and my whole career is about graduate business schools at a very international level, whether it was INSEAD or whether it was Cambridge Judge Business School. So I don’t seem to be the right person for this job. And I still remember that he, again paraphrasing, answered me, that’s precisely why we want to have you because we know how to run an undergraduate program in Singapore, but we want to develop the university and make it a more internationally recognized university, and we want to build the postgraduate programs. So I knew what my quote-unquote marching orders were. I was also convinced that to be a good, if not a great university, that SMU needed to increase its portfolio of programs—that included postgraduate master’s programs, that included the PhD program and that includes also continuing education in its many different forms, and of course also research, but we can probably talk about that later.
Postgraduate programs, I would say that I was in a sense lucky that Raj, our former provost, was also very much convinced about the role of postgraduate programs. And he brought in Phil Zerrillo, who is the academic entrepreneur by definition I would say. And we basically said, look, let’s grow, let a thousand blossoms bloom. There were a few existing programs. There was the Masters of Information Technology in Business, Banking in in those days. There was a very small MBA program that was struggling, and there were a few other small programs in finance, in economics. It’s not that there were no programs, but all of them, perhaps with the exception of MITB, were basically struggling and underperforming. Phil, or Dr Z, as everybody calls him, but Phil took on the challenge and grew. He’s a grower. Raj [Prof Rajendra Srivastava] was very much supportive of that. Howard Thomas—who also came from Warwick at about the same time as I came here, six months earlier, but who in Warwick had actually been growing the master’s programs, the specialized master’s programs, the pre-experience programs—he came in with the same sort of enthusiasm and willingness to grow these programs. And so there was this confluence of several people that together as a team said, let’s grow these programs.
The challenge is that we, in order to grow, we just couldn’t only rely on doing marketing, publishing a few advertisements or whatever. We actually needed to have pipelines of incoming students that probably came from other universities, and that’s where I decided to open up channels in China. We did have an existing channel with Xiamen University where we had signed an agreement, I think in 2007, for our Masters of Applied Finance. And when I looked at that, and understood how that worked, I thought this model must be able to work with other universities too. So in 2012, I decided to go to China, open up the doors there with many different universities and basically offer them the idea of a joint or double degree program, whereby they would send us a number of Chinese students into our programs. That has been actually quite successful.Challenges today, I would say we’ve grown fast, and I think we are now going through a consolidation phase. Not so much growth in numbers anymore, but growth in quality of the intake. In the meantime, we’ve actually been able to submit these programs to some of these rankings. We’ve gotten a few good rankings for some programs and that has given us visibility, that has given us credibility, I would say. So, the sales of the programs internationally has become a lot easier. And so, I think, we are now in the right position to say we have a good size type of program. Let’s now still grow it, but maybe not at the frantic pace that we had in the beginning, but at a slower pace. But let’s focus on quality. Let’s make sure that we also find good jobs for the people that graduate from our programs. Yes, I think those are the three elements that I would highlight. That is a team that was willing to grow it, an opening up to China that has been quite successful, and then the rankings that have been actually helping us in achieving visibility.