The Oxford (B-school) blues

  @FortuneMagazine August 29, 2013: 9:30 AM ET
GAM16 peter tufano

Oxford business school's new dean, Peter Tufano


Harvard had Jeff Immelt, Jamie Dimon, and Sheryl Sandberg. Stanford's business school had Vinod Khosla and Phil Knight. And the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School had ... Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who graduated in 2010.

Britain's oldest university (with roots in the 11th century!) consistently churns out top scholars and politicians but has lagged behind its American counterparts when it comes to nursing entrepreneurial talent (the Winklevii are the underwhelming exception). Part of the problem is the culture of Britain itself. The University of Cambridge isn't exactly the center of the startup universe either, although its focus on hard sciences gives it an edge. But founders in the U.K. aren't celebrated the way they are in the U.S. and Canada; they're seen as brash and disruptive, and they reek of new money. The mere thought of a prestigious institution such as Oxford encouraging entrepreneurship, elevating it to a course of study akin to philosophy or literature, is simply distasteful to many in academia. In 1996, when Oxford began talking about launching its business school, one English professor called the study of business not only "a phony academic subject" but also "a shallow contemporary shibboleth promoting a noxious cant."

Into this noxious environment stepped Peter Tufano, who became dean of Oxford's Saïd Business School in 2011 after 22 years as a Harvard Business School professor. Tufano is Saïd's fourth dean and the first non-Briton to hold the post. His mandate: to bring a little of the American MBA magic to the U.K. institution.

It's a formidable task. Saïd's MBA program comes in 24th on the Financial Times' list of top business schools and a lowly 48th on The Economist's ranking. In both, the top three spots go to American universities. In Oxford's defense, the school is only 17 years old, and it almost didn't get off the ground. The university nearly turned down a $30 million gift from Syrian-born businessman Wafic Saïd to establish a school. Reasons included concerns over his connections to the Saudi royal family, the new building's location, and, yes, the academic suspicion that a professional business school was a bit déclassé.

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Oxford reportedly made the decision to accept the money just days before Saïd's offer expired. "It became possible to believe that the study of business was, even in Britain, achieving intellectual respectability," John Kay, the school's first dean, wrote in a missive on his website. But it didn't last. Kay resigned less than three years later, citing entrenched institutional barriers that prevented the school from becoming globally competitive.

Tufano is betting that attitudes have changed -- or at least that he's the man to change them. Over the past decade Oxford has become more open to professional schools generally, with the addition of new programs in government and the environment. The business school has persevered. And the recession that hobbled the European economy has prompted the U.K. to look more seriously at its hallowed academic institutions as a source of business creation. As Prime Minister David Cameron told Fortune in May, "I can sell Oxford and Cambridge to the world."

Tufano understands Oxford's reservations over the seriousness of business education. Before he even took the job, he conducted 250 interviews of faculty, staff, and students. Now he's banking on the university's goodwill to help him put his plan in place. "Our strategy is all about trying to find win-win opportunities so that other parts of the university want to work with us," Tufano says. "If they don't, we fail."

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Some of his fellow educators are starting to warm to his pitch. "Peter rang me up and said, 'Come over and talk to me, Gordon,' so I did," recalls Gordon Clark, director of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. Tufano was pitching a new degree program to be set up jointly with Saïd and other Oxford departments, such as its environment school. Called 1+1, the program combines the one-year MBA at Saïd and a one-year master's at another Oxford department, plus some oversight and cooperation from each department to stitch the degrees together. The result resembles the two-year structure of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship. "I listened for five minutes and I said, 'Yeah. Right. Sign me on,' " Clark says.

Clark liked Tufano's idea for a business degree that took advantage of the rest of the university's hundreds of years of expertise. "I think this type of arrangement is a way of giving life to a broader conception of the MBA, and maybe a better model in the long term," Clark says. The program was successfully up and running in less than 10 weeks. (It helps that Tufano was also able to secure funding; the foundation of hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a former student of Tufano's at Harvard, donated $7 million for the 1+1 program.)

Tufano says his mission to "deeply embed" the business school within the university has been widely embraced by its leadership. Besides 1+1, he also launched a series of online courses and an online platform designed to connect students and alumni from different departments. Every year the program tackles a single large-scale problem, using massive open online course-style technology and online forums. This year the topic was demographics and the aging world population, next year it's big data, and in 2015 it will be managing the world's natural resources.

Tufano also aims to boost entrepreneurship, "a natural point of contact for the business school and the rest of the university," he says. There's the Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford program (now in its 13th year), which brings in California executives such as Tesla's (TSLA) Elon Musk and Twitter's Biz Stone. The initiative serves a student body hungering for such programs -- the largest student organization at the university is Oxford Entrepreneurs. And Tufano moved the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, funded by eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) billionaire Jeff Skoll, into a sleek glass office in the middle of the school.

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Saul Klein, a partner at Switzerland-based Index Ventures, says the U.K. is fast becoming a more hospitable place for tech startups. No Amazons (AMZN, Fortune 500) or Googles (GOOG, Fortune 500) yet, but British teenager Nick D'Aloisio made headlines in the local tabloids when he sold his company to Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) earlier this year. According to McKinsey & Co., the share of GDP that comes from Internet-related business is greater in Britain than in all but one other country (Sweden, actually). Of course, Klein doesn't think MBAs have much to do with a startup's success. "For me, the best business schools are Seedcamp [a London-based incubator] and Y Combinator."

At Oxford, Tufano still has to make a hard sell. Not every department he wants to partner with is willing, and high B-school salaries (pivotal to retaining prominent business leaders as faculty) are likely to remain a sticking point with the larger university. To really climb in the rankings, there's still a long way to go. "I'm impatient, but only because I see the great potential of the school," he says. It's too early to say whether his American way of thinking about the MBA will rub off on his British colleagues. At the moment he's letting a bit of England rub off on him. "I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke," he says. "I drink tea now."

This story is from the September 16, 2013 issue of Fortune. To top of page

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