POSTGRADUATE EDUCATION AT A TIME OF TECHNOLOGY AND TENSION. Costis Maglaras is the Dean of Columbia Business School, and the David and Lyn Silfen Professor of Business at Columbia University. He received his BS in Electrical Engineering from Imperial College, London, in 1990, and his MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in 1991 and 1998, respectively. He joined Columbia Business School in 1998, and prior to becoming dean served as chair of the Decision, Risk & Operations division at the Business School, Director of the School’s doctoral program, and was a member of the executive committee of the University’s Data Science Institute. He is a Fellow of INFORMS, an Honorary Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, and a Member of the Economic Club of New York.
The terror attacks on October 7th by Hamas on Israel and the subsequent response have created an intense reaction in American universities. This is happening at Columbia and on many other campuses. Universities are meant to be arenas of ideas, the places where people come together to have robust debate and discussion based on facts, context and history — to exchange ideas for the betterment of all of us. We need to increase our focus on that. In parallel, we have seen a very concerning rise of anti-Semitic language and microaggressions in our society, and we need to very deliberately act to eliminate that.
The world has developed hugely in the 25 years you have been at Columbia University, but have we suddenly been taken over by that old barbarian illness of racism?
We are in a time of tension, certainly in the United States and, for different reasons, also in Europe. We need to work toward achieving the basic tenet of what universities are supposed to do. You and I may disagree on our views on a particular topic — it could be social, political or something else — but we should be able to exchange ideas in a civil, constructive way. We should be able to learn from that exchange, even though we may not agree on the outcome of that conversation. We need to have a robust conversation, based on arguments, and we need to do that in a civil way that does not insult or hurt members of the community. We are working on that: we are holding conversations with every group of students, faculty, and staff. We need to bring people together. We need to have productive conversations. But it’s an ongoing journey.
“We are in the business of people, and we try to bring the best people in our institutions”
Columbia Business School students collaborate and converse in Samberg Commons
Costis Maglaras, how do you feel about the future of business education?
We’re at the point, not just at the business school but in general, of incredible change and disruption and also incredible opportunity. We’re dealing with crucial, important problems. With technology and artificial intelligence, the digital future is changing our lives in a dramatic way and is going to continue to do so for quite some time. Our collective response to climate change is going to itself dramatically affect every aspect of our lives, from the energy sector, how we move around, what we eat, how we build stuff, our habits. That’s going to dramatically influence what we teach and what people do in their lives later on.
There are important societal questions?
We have important societal issues, certainly here in the United States. The political polarization and tensions that arise from income and opportunity inequality, which exist also in Europe, are things that we need to address. A big issue that will affect all of us is the relationship between the US and China over the arc of several decades, and throughout this century that will be an interesting topic. There’s tremendous change, tremendous promise, but also significant disruption along the way. It’s a wonderful time to go to a university and to educate and engage in these topics.
Like all the Ivy League universities in the States you now have students coming from all over the world – China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Africa and Europe – and the United States. Do you observe many differences between your students’ interests or are they more or less interested in and wanting to study the same problems?
Business schools thrive on bringing people together who represent different perspectives. When we bring together a class, it’s important to bring people that have different backgrounds, different lived experiences, come from different places, have worked in different areas in the first 4, 5 or 6 years of their professional lives before they come to do an MBA degree. That adds both into what happens in the classroom, but also what happens outside of the classroom for all of the members of the school. There are some threads that tend to affect or interest many people. Climate is one of them, as is obviously technology. Most people got a wake-up call about AI 12 months ago when ChatGPT was released. A lot of the students are coming in sensitised, interested, curious about both the disruption and the opportunity from some of these catalytic technologies or issues.
And when they leave?
People go and pursue different careers. Some go into finance, some consulting, some start their own businesses. Some join non-profits or become social entrepreneurs. Some join large corporations trying to do different things. The heterogenous mix of people coming in all have diverse passions and ambitions, then eventually they fan out into different professional career paths. All are driven to go and change the world. Both American and European students are more sensitised about social issues, inequality, political polarisation than they were two and a half decades ago. That reflects on the types of courses that they do, the questions that they ask and the things that they want to pursue.
How does this time of change and disruption affect your business school in preparing the students for the future?
These issues are crucially important for the future, and we need to change our curriculum very ambitiously as change in these areas is happening. Last year we did an audit of what types of elective courses our students who graduated about 18 months ago took when they were here at the school. We realised that 40% of the elective courses that they took didn’t even exist five years ago. That’s the level of change in the curriculum to address the pace of change that is taking place. We’re very deliberate on focusing on that.
Can you give me an example?
An example that is personal is that I developed a course last year, a little bit for fun and a little bit for trying to get back into the classroom, which I did together with the Dean of the School of Engineering here at Columbia. We call it Technology Breakthroughs, and every week we spend about 90 minutes talking about something that we think is truly a breakthrough technology that is changing the world. For example, we try to describe to the students how deep learning and neural networks are working, what they can do, what we know right now, and then bring in venture capital investors, entrepreneurs, scientists and have a panel conversation where we try to imagine where we’re going to be 2, 4, 6, 10 years into the future.
“We need to continue to protect the development of the human being.”
Costis Maglaras, what about climate?
Climate change poses a defining challenge to the world. Our collective response to that challenge will affect every aspect of our lives, every industry, every corner of our economy. It will deeply affect business education and the careers our students take in their future. At the climate conference COP28 in Dubai a group of schools announced an initiative that we started at Columbia. We call it the Open Climate Curriculum Initiative. We are going to take all of the climate related curricula that we’re going to be developing in Columbia Business School and we’re going to open source them to the academic world. We will make them available to others to use, to copy and to build on, and to bring to their own classrooms. We are going to do that collaboratively with schools such as Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, Brown, MIT, Berkeley, Michigan, Yale, Duke and others, and some from Europe as well. We intend this to support the intense need in every business school in the world right now to ambitiously develop curriculum that prepares students to address climate change through business. In climate, it is possible that you develop a cutting-edge course and when you look at it five years from now, it will be almost obsolete. One way to work on that question of “how can business schools overall develop courses and keep them up to date” is first-of-all to collaborate with faculty at different schools to do that, so that we can add leverage to our individual efforts. And secondly, share as widely as possible, so that we don’t all have to be working on every problem that we need to address in our classrooms. The other thing that we are doing is we take the courses that we develop for the MBA students that are currently in the school and then we try to make them available to all of our alumni in the context of a lifelong learning initiative, so that they also get reskilled about things that are crucially important. Because they are also facing the same transition but they’re not at school.
You prepare people for the changing next ten years, but do you also acknowledge that there are basic aspects of education and culture that prepare the human person?
Yes, and we build on the basis of a strong liberal arts undergraduate education. An undergraduate student right now at Columbia, similar to 30 or 50 or 70 years ago, takes music, philosophy, literature, history. The humanist training and the rounding of the individual is crucially important. We also try to do that in the business school: whatever career you’re going to pursue in life crucially depends on the ability to think, to be empathetic, to bring people together, to motivate, to inspire, to collaborate, to disagree, to have feelings, and then ultimately strive for the betterment of humanity.
Is there a deficiency of educating about this in today’s world?
Our kids can be affected negatively if — in the context of their family, their school years — they pivot into a career path early and do not continue to broaden their focus. Technology is also affecting how kids interact. When you and I were young we would build friendships by doing things together, talking in person and interacting face to face. Technology has enabled a lot of things but in-person interaction and immersing yourself in the college experience remains crucially important. We need to continue to protect the development of the human being. I tell that to my kids.
Do your students understand that?
The students that we get in the business school are in their mid to late 20s, and they certainly understand that. This was also made abundantly clear during the pandemic where students missed on their interactions outside of class.
David Geffen Hall, Columbia Business School
Students ask questions during a Columbia Business School event
NVIDIA Founder and CEO Jensen Huang speaks with Dean Costis Maglaras about AI and Leadership in a Digital Future Initiatve and Silfen Leadership Series event
CBS students participate in the Lang Center Student Startup Showcase
Students conversing on the Manhattanville campus
Henry R. Kravis Hall, Columbia Business School
“There are good universities elsewhere, but the industry of education is an industry that American institutions dominate.”
Costis Maglaras, do you prefer a general education first, then job experience, then coming to the business school?
There are good schools that do undergraduate business education, in Europe as well as the United States, but we do not have an undergraduate business major at Columbia.
The school that I lead is a graduate school. We look for students with a broad, liberal arts, undergraduate education — that includes a deeper dive into one’s passion — and practical experience, to acquire domain knowledge and experience with interpersonal dynamics at work.
How many students are in the business school?
The MBA program and the executive MBA program are both two-year programs, and we bring in about 850 MBA students every year and about 300 executive MBA students, so about 2300 students at any point in time. Then we have about 120 Ph.D. students that are working in their own disciplines and that take Ph.D. degrees upon graduations. We admit about 25 of these per year and they stay for 5 to 6 years. In addition, we have some smaller MS programs in specialized fields.
Why did you choose to dedicate your life to an academic career?
I smile because that’s a question that my wife asks often. My wife is also from Greece. We met at Stanford and back in the late 90s, the so-called dot com period, there was a lot of hype in tech. I was working squarely in that space, on the mathematical end of electrical engineering, and I was probably in one of the very best places on the planet to do that. A lot of my classmates indeed dropped out, started companies and did extremely well and I thought about it on a couple of twists and turns in 95 or 97. At that point in time I was working on a problem that now sounds almost too simple or too old, on how packets of information flow through the internet and how you control for that and how you model it. Towards the very last period of my Ph.D. I got particularly interested in using some strong mathematical skills and engineering skills in thinking about similar questions in the world of business, to improve economic outcomes and the like. Research interests meander and change over time, but I came here as a junior assistant professor back in 98 and then eventually was here for 21 years and thriving in what I was doing. About four years ago and a little bit more than that, I was given the opportunity to lead this incredible institution and it has been obviously a privilege and a pleasure to do so.
Do you think that American Ivy League universities like yours are still the best in the world?
I do. There are good universities elsewhere, but the industry of education is an industry that American institutions dominate. They have incredible resources in talent, and are a magnet for incredible students. That has created a virtuous cycle that started around the Second World War. U.S. institutions were very strong before that, but not as strong as the European counterparts. There was an exodus of talent from Europe into the US in the 30s and 40s and then there was an enormous increase of financial resources that were meant to support research during the Cold War in this country. That did not happen anywhere else, and that eventually created a differential that built the American universities that we know today. They continue to be great.
Do you compete very fiercely for the best possible professors?
Absolutely. We are in the business of people, and we try to bring the best people in our institutions, support them to do incredible work, bring the best talent in the class, and try to support them in very meaningful interactions that add value to everyone. We brutally compete to try to bring the best possible faculty and support them in their journeys. It is very difficult, but I feel we have succeeded in building a faculty that is among the very best.
Costis Maglaras, thank you very much for this conversation.
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