Personal View

The Evolution of the MBA

By Dave Wilson, MBA 65

Fifty years ago, I descended the steps of an American Airlines Boeing 720 at San Francisco Airport from Chicago. I had connected from an Air Canada turbo prop from Toronto. “Lost” is an insufficient descriptor. After a bus ride to Oakland with everything I owned, and then a cab ride, I found myself in Berkeley, California, and wondered, “Davey lad, what the hell have you done?”

A professor told me in fall 1963 to take the Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business, now the GMAT. So I did. The same professor told me to apply to UC Berkeley. So I did. I came from a very small program at a small Canadian university, Queen’s, with a total enrollment of 2,800 students at that time. And here I was at the University of California.

My first decision was to take fullest advantage of all that Berkeley’s business school (not yet “Haas”) and its top scholars had to offer. And indeed I did. C. West Churchman’s seminar on “Prediction and Optimal Decision” was so far above me, I was on oxygen support. But what a gracious and caring professor. Bart McGuire’s course on game theory gave me a foundation that I apply to decisions today. And Harry Guthmann’s course on value-based investing remains a core value.

My Berkeley MBA prepared me for the world that I was entering. The accounting profession was “principles” based. The financial markets were limited primarily to bonds and stocks. The IBM 1401 was the latest computer and occupied an entire floor of an office building. In the five decades since, we have seen a dramatic change in the complexity of the business world that today’s graduates enter. Financial markets are rich with new instruments crafted to address investor preferences. The accounting profession today lives in a mélange of rules, some of which often conflict. Wrist phones, once only in Dick Tracy comics, are hitting the mainstream.

But the foundation from my time in Barrows Hall has served me well, providing a theoretical foundation, the capacity to think laterally, the discipline to follow a problem to its conclusion however long it took. I was also a beneficiary of the Berkeley-Haas values: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself. In short, I was granted a foundation for addressing and managing the risks I would confront in business and in life.

But what of tomorrow? Technology has created a new delivery channel but not the need for a firm theoretical foundation nor, more importantly, has it diminished the significance of a value system. Digital delivery of content is pedagogically sound in some contexts. But as the challenges that we confront become more complex and values based, I remain a fierce advocate for the interactive dialogue of a classroom or seminar. A MOOC (massive open online course) will never replace a Haas classroom.

Moreover, the fundamental risks for which I was prepared—business, financial, and economic—remain but are measurably more complex for today’s graduates. Economic risk is now global, not simply local, regional, or national. Technology accelerates the pace of any shift. Financial risk, while fundamentally the same 50 years later, moves at warp speed with programmed trading and complex instruments. The MBA curriculum focuses on these.

However, today’s graduate also will have to master cyber risk and regulatory risk. Cyber threats are well covered by the media, such as the theft of information of 70 million Target customers. Regulatory risk has grown exponentially, from the Securities and Exchange Commission aggressively altering the landscape of financial reporting to the Dodd-Frank legislation including a Byzantine requirement for public companies to disclose their use of “conflict minerals” such as gold mined in the Congo.

The challenges that today’s graduate will face are complex and daunting. But the Haas graduate will thrive. Haas gave me a values-based commitment, rooted in a solid theoretical foundation, to challenge the status quo, but respectfully, to see beyond the obvious. Its guiding principles ensure that today’s graduate will be as fortunate as I was.

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Dave Wilson, MBA 65, retired in 2013 as president and CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), owner of the Graduate Management Admission Test, after holding the position for 18 years. Before heading GMAC, Wilson served as managing partner and national director for professional development at Ernst & Young. He held faculty positions at the University of Texas at Austin and the Harvard Business School.

Dave Wilson