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Chicago Booth Magazine: You’ve called yourself a “lifelong learner.” Can you take us back and share an anecdote about a moment in your childhood or school years that sparked your interest in business and/or academia? How can Booth instill a similar love for learning in future generations?

Dean Rajan: Steve Jobs famously noted that you can only connect the dots looking backward, and that is certainly true in my case. I did not think through or plan out my career. My decision to study business for my undergraduate degree was based purely on the fact that my older brothers were engineers and I wanted to learn something different. I then moved to pursue a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University, for the simple reason that my father worked in Pittsburgh. I did well in my first-year courses and was approached by a faculty member, who asked whether I had considered doing a PhD. I had not, but he persuaded me by noting that I would get paid to study, which seemed an amazing concept! This particular professor was in accounting, and that’s how I ended up in that field. However, Carnegie was unique in not having an economics department separate from the business school. Every student in accounting, economics, and finance did virtually the same coursework. Looking back, I have benefited immensely from the breadth of study and interdisciplinary training I received at Carnegie.

Even then I wasn’t sure I would become an academic. Many of my PhD friends ended up in consulting, and I always thought the same would happen to me. But I liked academic research and teaching and was successful at it, so when I got a job offer from Wharton, it was an opportunity to keep going.

Coming to Booth, I am firmly of the view that the school should support lifelong learning for its alumni. Two years ago, the school launched Back to Booth, which are short, nondegree classes for alumni. These courses provide opportunities to relive the Booth classroom experience with fellow alumni, and to learn about the latest ideas from faculty across the school. I cannot imagine a better way for alumni to keep connected with the school and to continue to learn from our great instructors and the latest ideas they are working on.

The business school is well positioned to grow its visibility globally.

— Madhav V. Rajan

CBM: Booth has been at the forefront of leadership education, and continues to push current students to explore their own strengths as leaders through the LEAD course. How would you describe your own personal leadership style?

Rajan: People who know me would tell you I am open, transparent, and approachable. I tend to be even-tempered, and don’t generally get fazed or unsettled by things happening around me. My approach is to listen to all viewpoints, and to be careful and measured in what I do. I like to overcommunicate at every stage. I let people know their opinions are considered and taken into account, and that my decision is what I think is the best one for the school. In general, I view my role as one of setting strategic direction. I believe in delegating authority and empowering others to carry out their mandates without micromanaging their actions; the ultimate responsibility, of course, remains with me.

CBM: What do you see as Booth’s strengths and how will you build on the school’s success?

Rajan: I appreciate the school’s mission: to produce enduring knowledge and to influence and educate current and future leaders. This is a school with amazing achievements and assets—the greatest being our extraordinary faculty, who produce pathbreaking ideas with global impact. The school is dedicated to scientific research and discipline-based rigor as the foundation of everything it does, from scholarly work to the structuring of the curriculum. Maintaining and extending Booth’s prominence in research and enhancing the impact of our ideas on the world, by training tomorrow’s leaders and by developing policy prescriptions, are essential for our continued success.

In the short term, my goal is threefold: One, to continue the school’s momentum in Hong Kong and see the new campus through to its completion, scheduled for fall 2018. Two, to continue building on Booth’s successes with the campaign the university is running. And three, to understand more deeply the culture of the school, by visiting and talking to faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as a prelude to making changes that will make us even stronger.

Longer term, we are uniquely positioned to leverage our strengths in data and analytics to make an impact in a variety of fields in the real world, from healthcare to education to energy. The trend toward a more data-driven approach to marketing and other functions is in our favor, and we have to make investments that will propel us to leadership in this area, in both research and teaching. I also feel we can and should do more to collaborate with the university at large, combining business with other fields, via collaboration among faculty across divisions, and via joint-degree programs.

CBM: How do you see the Booth alumni network as a part of achieving that success?

Rajan: We have an exceptional community of more than 52,000 alumni, who are deeply committed to the success of the school. Our alumni’s contributions of their time and mentoring, referrals of students, and hiring of our graduates are all critical to the school’s success.

During the transition, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of our most active alumni across the globe. I look forward to meeting many more in the coming months. I expect to spend a significant portion of my time as dean connecting with alumni. That is particularly important now, when the university is running an ongoing fundraising campaign. Transformative gifts from our alumni and friends allow us to recruit the best students, hire and retain the best faculty, and provide our faculty the resources to conduct innovative research and produce ideas with enduring impact.

CBM: As a former visiting faculty member, you taught at Booth’s campuses in Europe and Asia. What was that experience like?

Rajan: In 2007–08, I taught at what was then Chicago GSB, at our campuses in London and, at the time, Singapore. In the summer of 2007, I was approached by the dean’s office to teach managerial accounting to the Executive MBA students. I had enjoyed teaching executive MBA students when I was at Wharton and was intrigued by the idea of teaching executives working in diverse overseas locations. Stanford has rules against teaching in other schools’ degree programs, but the provost’s office permitted me to do so. And so, I became a visiting faculty member at Chicago GSB, with the dubious distinction, though, that I never set foot in Chicago during that year. I had a wonderful experience teaching in both the EXP and AXP. I started in London and, admittedly, it took me a couple of days to figure out the teaching norms and how best to engage the students. I definitely did a better job in Singapore and also got to connect with the students more on a social level, including celebrating Chinese New Year with them. In both places, I was struck by the students’ dedication to the academic experience while managing full-time careers, as well as the great bonding and network created by the cohort structure. It was clear that these students would be each other’s friends, advisors, and business partners for life.

CBM: How do you think Booth can continue to grow its reputation outside the United States and reach prospective students around the world?

Rajan: The business school is well positioned to grow its visibility globally, given our unique model of campuses on three continents and university centers to complement Booth’s locations. Our physical presence, combined with the increasing number of Booth and university activities outside the US, should be viewed as key assets to leverage for reaching prospective students.

In Hong Kong, we’re building a university center that will be not only the home of our Executive MBA Program Asia, but also our Asian hub for promoting our programs and faculty as well as strengthening our support communities. The Yuen Center itself will build visibility for Booth as various academic centers and departments plan activities. One example is through our relationship with the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation will be at the heart of organizing and implementing the newly established Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation. The partnership and the programme will have a profoundly positive effect on our global reputation. 

In addition, our alumni network is one of our biggest assets and can be further leveraged. We have more than 95 alumni clubs across the globe, which do a great job of hosting and promoting events; they are becoming more strategic in supporting the school’s Admissions teams. We also have multiple Global Advisory Boards, focused on regional initiatives and dedicated to helping attract the best students to all of our programs. Our alumni can champion our efforts globally by supporting our global Executive MBA Program via scholarships and student referrals, by hiring our graduates, and by supporting our Annual Fund’s Global Visibility Fund. The latter is a vehicle for the dean’s office to experiment with and take advantage of new opportunities globally. For example, the Polsky Center’s Global LaunchPad was kick-started by the Global Visibility Fund and has led to events in China, India, Mexico, and next in Hong Kong. 

CBM: I understand you’re currently on a cross-country road trip with your daughter to Chicago. What have been some of your favorite sights or experiences so far?

Rajan: We had planned a longer trip initially, but my daughter got a better offer—to attend the taping of the final runway show for America’s Next Top Model in Santa Monica. As a result, we had only about a week for our trip before she started work. We made good use of that time, though, splitting our days between southern Oregon and Idaho. Crater Lake was breathtaking; computer screens and photos do not do justice to the color of that water. We also went to Ashland, Oregon, to see a play at the Shakespeare Festival. In Sun Valley, Idaho, we went fly-fishing for the first time and enjoyed it immensely. We both caught several fish, thanks largely to the efforts of our guide. I must admit it was also great fun to drive in a state (Idaho) that has an 80 mph posted speed limit!

CBM: What books are on your reading list right now?

Rajan: Interestingly enough, a significant fraction of my current reading list is composed of materials given to me by my new faculty colleagues at Chicago. I am reading these to get a better understanding of the history and culture of the university and the school. I view this knowledge as indispensable for informing the decisions I will have to make.

[College dean] John Boyer gave me a copy of his masterwork, The University of Chicago: A History. Harry Davis provided me with materials from several sources detailing the history of the business school. Also, within a few days of joining Booth, I had the great pleasure of a visit from Richard Thaler. He gave me an autographed copy of his book Misbehaving. This is a fascinating read, a personal account of the development of behavioral economics. In the inside cover, Dick had a handwritten note suggesting that I read Chapter 28 in particular. I would urge all students and alumni, and anyone with an interest in understanding the faculty culture at Booth, to do the same!

Did You Know?

The former quiz bowl champion divulges some fun facts about himself.

I love trivia. My claim to fame is that when I was an undergrad in India, I won a national individual quiz competition in my senior year. That was the highlight of my life, until my appointment as dean at Booth. I haven’t participated in trivia contests in a long time, but have hosted several of them at Stanford for students and faculty in recent years.

I am, and will always be, a Steelers fan. When I was a student in Pittsburgh, I would watch every one of their games on television and listen to talk radio during the week. I resolved that if the opportunity ever arose, I would go to the Super Bowl to watch them play. And sure enough, I did in 2011 when they played the Green Bay Packers in Arlington, Texas. Of course, they lost that game and have not been back to the Super Bowl since . . .

I am the only person in my house to not have a degree in computer science. My wife, a Stanford MBA graduate, also has an MS in computer science from Penn, and is an executive at Google. My daughters both studied at Stanford and majored in theoretical computer science; one is now a cryptographer and the other is a product manager.

—By LeeAnn Shelton