Owen at 50

1989-1998: Maturation – and Validation

Owen’s third decade was the first that began with the school in strong position on a broad range of fronts.  A decade earlier, Dean Sam Richmond could boast that Owen had come of age. Now, it had done more than merely “arrive”; it had demonstrated staying power. Receiving accreditation was no longer a brag point but a given. Now, a school that was becoming more international throughout the decade could focus on something bigger: the kind of validation that comes through rankings.

The new decade began with a new logo. The outward-facing arrows gave way to a simpler design: the school’s name with one half of the globe inside the “O.” It was a good fit. The logo had a more established feel, commensurate with Owen’s more established presence on the graduate business education landscape, and it reflected the school’s increasingly global reach.

International students had been an important presence from the beginning. As an illustration of the informal atmosphere that prevailed early on, long-timers recalled a student from France who casually walked into a 1969 faculty meeting, took a seat as if he belonged, was greeted with shrugs and allowed to stay. The faculty, too, had been international; the first dean, in fact, was born in Russia.

But now the school’s global emphasis felt more rooted, more evident in various aspects of student life. In 1989, the new Owen International Business Association proposed what appears to have been the first school-sponsored overseas trip — to Japan — and Dean Martin Geisel eagerly embraced the idea. Between 1990 and 1991 the number of courses at Owen with an international orientation doubled. In 1997, the school launched an International Executive MBA program. That same year saw the first “World Awareness Week,” complete with a global food festival that became a favorite tradition.

From the earliest days, graduates believed their education at Vanderbilt allowed them to compete with anyone. But it also followed that, for a young school with high ambitions, external validations of Owen against more established and prestigious MBA programs would be prized.

One came as early as 1978, when an Owen team, coached by Professor David Furse, beat 19 other schools in a marketing competition sponsored by General Motors. Many more such wins would follow in the decades to come.

A decade earlier, one of the school’s unrealized goals had been to secure enough funding to expand its inadequate library. In 1998, the Princeton Review ranked Walker Management Library number one among business school libraries. It would go on to claim that honor for five straight years.

But whatever other achievements Owen may have recorded, rankings remained a touchstone by which many — especially prospective students — measured MBA programs. So it felt like an important breakthrough when, 23 years after the school opened, Owen cracked the top 20 in national rankings in 1992.

Meanwhile, research by faculty, whose work the school originally lacked resources to support, was elevating Owen’s profile and reputation dramatically. In 1993, Bob Whaley developed a Volatility Index — the VIX — for the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Whaley’s pioneering innovation (he went on to create three other indices) became a key benchmark by which investors, analysts and portfolio managers measure market risk, fear and stress. The next year, a young Finance professor named Bill Christie jarred the financial world when they published compelling evidence that market makers at NASDAQ were profiting from collusion at the expense of investors. Citing the fines eventually levied against NASDAQ by the SEC, The Economist called Christie’s work “the first billion-dollar economics article.”

In 1996, Owen implemented a major curriculum revision; that one had not occurred in nearly two decades perhaps was testimony to the strength of the program Sam Richmond had designed. One could hear faint echoes in the new curriculum of Igor Ansoff, who had famously said, “God did not invent the 15-week semester.” Owen’s innovation now was a switch to the seven-week mod system. A streamlined core curriculum meant that students could take classes sooner in their area of concentration; one result of that accelerated approach, as students frequently noted in the years to come, was that they felt better prepared in interviews for internships than peers from schools where content was still organized into traditional semesters. The new curriculum was notable for one other innovation: students could now choose 60 percent of their courses. That innovation, too, had lasting repercussions. It baked into Owen’s program a degree of choice and flexibility that became part of the school’s brand identity and appeal — world-class education on a personal scale.

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