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Sitting Down with Jay Light

He’s one of the first people to speak to us on Orientation Day and one of the last we’ll hear from before graduating. Dean Jay Light has an overarching impact on all of our lives here at Harvard Business School, and he is energetic, excited for the future and a refreshingly candid interviewee. He sat down with The Harbus and gave his thoughts on class sizes, the economy, Ben Bernanke and what he likes to do in his spare time:

HARBUS: There have been rumors of an eventual expansion of the MBA class size to 1,000 and the potential of adding another section. Can you comment on this and the reasoning behind it?

Jay Light (JL): So facts-so let’s talk some facts. Typically, we target 900 to 910 students. I don’t see the class size increasing to anywhere near 1,000. This year the target was 2% higher, and we have about 937, for a few reasons:

First of all, the number of applications we had was up, with great quality applicants. The first round last year was up 25%. So we said wow, our admit rate is going to be one of the lowest we’ve had; does that make sense?

Secondly, we needed to because of what was going on in the financial markets and the endowment, to cut back on expenditures in the budget. So the question is, how do you reduce the net expenses of the MBA program while still holding fellowships steady? And our solution was to admit a few more students, and that allows you to keep the fellowships. In fact, we increased fellowships by $1 million last year. It was not necessarily an easy thing to do.

It is unlikely right now that we will go to an 11th section, but these are things that we talk about all the time. We talked about the idea and explicitly decided not to this year. It has to do with making sure we maintain the quality of the classroom experience in all sorts of ways.

HARBUS: Do you think a class size of 95 is too large to allow for a personalized learning experience? Do you think that a size of 70 or 50 would be better?

JL: No. I think there is a flat optimum. I think the case method is better in large class sizes. I’ve taught a lot of class sizes in my life. I think 60 people is too small. You don’t get the diversity of opinion. An individual student may say, “Oh, this is great, I get to talk more.” But from the point of view of the quality of the
discussion, I think it continues to ramp up as the number of students in the class goes up, to the 80-100 range.

HARBUS: In the past few years, HBS has opened six research offices around the world, including in China and France. Where do you see HBS moving in the future internationally?

JL: We’ll be opening up our Shanghai facility January 1st, which will for the first time feature a classroom like the ones here on campus. Students from the China IXP will use that classroom, and we will also have 13 weeks of executive education teaching over there in China next year.

One can imagine putting a center one day in Eastern Europe-maybe in Russia, maybe somewhere else. One can imagine opening one in the Middle East or Africa. So it’s conceivable, though we have no plans to do so right now.

HARBUS: How have the events of the last year played into curriculum planning for HBS?

JL: It certainly has influenced a lot of cases, but more importantly, it has led to new courses that are part of the EC curriculum, and redefinitions of existing courses. What really happened is student demand changed. The second year curriculum is a function of what students really want to do with their lives, more than anything else. As students start to become more aware of the risks out there, I think what you will see from them is the appetite to look at things in a different way, and you will see the second year curriculum respond to that. Part of that is faculty leading the charge saying “Hey, we should be teaching about these things,” and part of it is students saying, “Hey, we should be learning about these things.”

HARBUS: Earlier for Forbes, you gave examples of your top five historical partnerships, ranging from the Curies to Hewlett and Packard. Can you update your list with some of the figures that have stepped up in the tumultuous events of the last year?

JL: I would have Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke on the list. I think they were a great partnership in my view. I think we were very, very lucky to have them. There is a certain amount of Monday morning quarterbacking going on now. That’s pretty easy stuff. You play the game on Sunday afternoon, and you make tough decisions at the spur of the moment. It’s very easy to comment on the Monday after about what should have happened. I thought they were a terrific team. They brought a kind of academic reflection and bold decision-making at a time of crisis, so I give them great kudos.

I thought Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan and his team-although I can’t tell you exactly which members of the team I’d put on the list-also did a terrific job.

HARBUS: A question from the males: what kind of watch do you wear?

JL: Oh, I have no idea! (looking down). It is a Citizen Eco Drive. It’s powered by sunlight. It probably cost me $18. It is not a fashion item.

HARBUS: What in your opinion are some of the most significant innovations that have emerged within the past few years?

JL: I would have Kindle on my list. I use it a lot; I’m now reading all my newspapers, magazines, and books on the Kindle. We’re going to have to get another one for the house because my wife keeps stealing it.

And I think battery technology is really interesting. I think power storage, particularly the type being used in automobiles, is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It’s a huge deal. It’s not an easy innovation; it’s not a one shot thing. What you need is continual improvement in battery technology, which could be really crucial for a lot of things.

There are things happening all around us that are highly innovative, most of which can’t be seen. There is a green roof on the top of Shad which you have to be in a helicopter to see, but it exists, trust me. I think the whole energy conservation movement going on here at HBS is really, really interesting and highly innovative.

HARBUS: What are you reading right now?

JL: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

HARBUS: Favorite restaurants in Boston, casual and formal?

JL: I rarely eat out in Boston. During the week, I typically am entertaining either at the Dean’s House or somewhere else. My favorite restaurant is actually in Westport, where I am on the weekends. I do like the East Coast Grill in Cambridge. The same guy who owns it owns Back Eddy’s, which is my favorite weekend restaurant.

HARBUS: One of your favorite hobbies is sailing. What else do you enjoy in your free time? Guilty pleasures?

JL: I don’t have guilty pleasures. I am too old, or maybe I feel no guilt! (laughter). So I play a lot of tennis, I do a lot of reading, and I also collect maps. If you look around my office, those are all my personal maps. I have one of the first Mercator-based maps ever made.

HARBUS: You identified in 2006 the globalization of HBS and its executive program overseas as some of the school’s largest issues. We’ve now seen the results of those efforts-what will be the focus of the school going forward? What do you see as the greatest issues facing HBS and the most necessary areas of focus for the school?

JL: Well, in terms of the MBA program, you will see 2-3 things. One is continued emphasis on becoming more global in terms of cases, courses, curriculum, etc. Work on that is never done. Second would be leadership-ways to work on leadership skills beyond the 90-person classroom. We have a number of faculty test courses working on this now, so that is really important. Thirdly, I would say two combined things-the structure of the fourth term, and opportunities for experiential learning, by which I mean having students go out of the classroom into the field, etc.

I think by the fourth term, students tend to get a little bored with the 3-cases-a-day routine. And I think that’s both a problem and an enormous opportunity to think about how to structure that fourth term differently to allow for a whole different range of educational experiences for students. Some won’t take place in Boston and will involve field projects, etc. So I think working on those ideas for fourth term is something we need to push ahead on.

HARBUS: Finance and consulting have traditionally been areas of focus for new grads coming out of HBS-do you expect this to change within the next 5 years? 10 years?

JL: No, I don’t. First of all, it is important to note that graduates, though a substantial amount do go into consulting and finance, don’t actually stay in those sectors for very long. If you look at where they are on average 10 years out, they have actually moved away from those fields into a very broad array of careers. And I don’t think that’s going to change. Consulting and finance are really interesting platforms from which to view the world and from which people can very effectively lead after a couple years.

I think in the long-run, people will still go to what they really want to do 5 or 10 years on out. And that’s a very wide range of things: retailing, entrepreneurship, social enterprise, operations, education, you name it. Our students are doing incredible things all over the globe and in all sorts of interesting industries and positions. And relatively few of them are still in finance and consulting.

I think there will be some cyclicality. I think there will be fewer jobs in the financial sector within the next couple years. But I don’t think the change will be as much as people are thinking. The firms that I talk to are still very much hiring here in finance.

HARBUS: What’s a last piece of advice you’d leave HBS students with? What should we beware of? What should we take advantage of?

JL: Well, particularly for the 2nd years: stay engaged. There is a tendency to say, “Oh, I understand this place now, I can take it easy.” And I think this is a unique opportunity and that all of you, when you are two or five years out of here, will say, “Gee, I wish I would have taken advantage of this more, or that more, taken this course or done that project.” Stay engaged, not only with the classroom but with extracurriculars. Stay engaged with your friends, continue to build those relationships, and continue to develop as people. And by the way, after you leave this place, continue to do the same. Education doesn’t end when you cross the stage and get your diploma-it begins.

I think life is a long, long journey through places that none of us ever dreamed possible.You really don’t know where you’ll go, or what the opportunities are going to be. So my advice would be to continue to develop your skills-management, leadership and people skills. Continue to think broadly about what you want to do, and be ready for the opportunity that will come down the road that you will just trip over one day and say, “Oh! I never thought of that one day, but that’d be really great to do it.” That’s my advice.

HARBUS: What should we cherish? I think we all feel lucky to be here.

JL: The whole experience.

HARBUS: Everything?

JL: Yes, everything. Everything. The section, the class, the students, the faculty. It’s the whole 24-hour gig. It is special, and there are not very many places like this. You will miss it when you leave, trust me. We all do.

I think this is a fabulous place. It is important to take advantage of it while you are here. It is important to think broadly of what you want to do. This is your first step of a hard-to-forecast, hard-to-imagine journey.

Be good brand ambassadors. The world loves to trash great institutions. People always say nasty things about what they don’t understand. When they meet the reality, they are always blown away, particularly by the reality of the people who learn and teach at this place. It is important for us all to show, through our actions in everything we do in life, that this is a pretty terrific place. Because it really is. So just keep representing yourselves the way you really are, rather than the way the media may like to have you be at times. You guys are great. Be yourselves, and they will see it.

HARBUS: Thank you very much.

October 26, 2009
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