Five Years of Progress and the World Takes Note
When Raghu Sundaram took the helm as Dean of NYU Stern, he set out to advance the long-term competitiveness of the School by building on Stern’s culture of embracing change. Five consequential years into his tenure, Stern has regularly been making news headlines. From shattering MBA starting salary records to historic fundraising levels to launching innovations in its flagship MBA and Undergraduate Programs, Stern has been on the move. Stern Board member and American Express EVP Alan Gallo (BS '87, MBA '90) sat down with Dean Sundaram to reflect on the state of Stern, and the secret to the School's success behind the headlines.
Photo: Dean Raghu Sundaram (left) and Alan Gallo (right)
Alan Gallo: Before we dive into all the great news reported about the School, how would you characterize the state of NYU Stern?
Raghu Sundaram: All things considered, pretty good. It's been an exciting five years despite COVID. We've seen record fundraising levels, record incoming student metrics like test scores and GPA, and record graduating student metrics like starting compensation and diversified employment outcomes, all while constantly enhancing the student experience through innovative new courses and programs. I don't think there is a more nimble business school than Stern, certainly none with more talented and dedicated faculty, staff, and students.
AG: I've been reading some stunning headlines about Stern in the news. How has the School achieved such phenomenal outcome?
RS: As I mentioned, we have an outstanding community, and when you combine that with dedicated teamwork, the rest takes care of itself. Success is, in many ways, a virtuous cycle. When you attract great students and give them a rigorous, deep, and immersive educational experience, that results in more and more employers competing for our students and building a great alumni network, in turn enabling us to attract more outstanding students, beginning the cycle again.
AG: Higher ed isn’t known for rapid change. But Stern appears to buck that trend. Why is that?
RS: The spirit of innovation is deeply embedded in Stern's cultural DNA. We have a winning combination of strengths. Deep faculty expertise across a range of disciplines. An outstanding team of administrators. Our New York City location which enables us to connect to top industry experts for advice and insights. A hugely supportive alumni community. When all of these forces work together, change is easy and, in fact, necessary—once people get energized, they don't want to accept the status quo. They reset their own expectations upward, and they constantly think about and evolve ahead of what the market needs from us.
AG: I have been told by some of your colleagues that you make Stern a safe place to try new things. Do you agree?
RS: Well, one can always avoid failure in innovations by not innovating at all, but of course, nothing offers a surer route to organizational atrophy and failure than that. So one has to accept the risk of failure if one is to move ahead. At Stern, we certainly encourage taking risks, but they are considered and informed risks. A great deal of thought, research, and planning goes into starting new programs. And we rely on collective wisdom: before we launch new programs we take a faculty vote, and we launch when, and only when, we have overwhelming support. Collectively, this process has enabled us to build a strong track record of innovation and success.
AG: Reflect back on your first day as Dean. Does Stern’s progress to-date align with your expectations on ‘day one?’
RS: With expectations, yes, at least on many fronts. When you have the students, faculty and staff that we do, the sky's the limit. We have brought in ever more outstanding students year after year; continuous programmatic innovation offers them ever richer and, in many, cases, "only at Stern" experiences and employment outcomes have improved strongly each year—all despite the pandemic. In turn, this has led to increased support from our community in many ways including, of importance, in fundraising. But, of course, all of this has only increased our appetite for further success.
AG: Stern has created a number of innovative pathways to the MBA beyond the traditional two-year program. Why was this important?
RS: The workplace and nature of work have changed dramatically in the last few decades and especially in the last few years—witness, for example, the rise of hybrid or remote work. As a result, one size no longer fits all: students are seeking more flexibility on how they earn their MBA, whether it's geography, format, or focus specialty. Given the size and depth of our faculty, we've been able to deliver on all three. We expanded our Executive MBA Program to Washington, DC and created two one-year MBA programs in technology, and in fashion and luxury, respectively. All three just celebrated five-year anniversaries. Our Online MSQM Program includes a pathway to the Langone Part-Time MBA program, which also now includes its own hybrid online-modular option.
AG: Stern is often cited for its innovative and immersive student experiences, what you call "only at Stern" experiences. Can you tell us about a few of the newer initiatives?
RS: Thanks to our constantly innovating faculty, there are so many! They leverage our unique strengths as a School and as a University: our NYC location, the global NYU footprint, and the deep connections to industry that bring unique and immersive opportunities to students. As one example, in the Undergraduate College, we introduced a Design Sprint for first-year students in the BS in Business, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Program. As another, on the entrepreneurship side, we have the now-five-year-old Endless Frontier Labs through which MBA students provide business development support to science-and-tech-based start-ups alongside a who's who of mentors and investors; and just this winter, a group of MBAs traveled to the UK for the "Global Real Estate Immersion: London" experiential learning course. These are just a few examples; the list is very long.
AG: You’ve always been quick to attribute success to the team, and faculty are core to that. How does Stern faculty stand out and why?
RS: From the days of Marcus Nadler, Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming, Stern faculty have always been thought leaders and figures of influence in the world of business. That tradition, I am happy to say, continues. Stern faculty rank number one globally among business schools for research downloads. They include legends with international followings and successful entrepreneurs. They act as advisers to corporations, governments, and policy makers across the globe. And they routinely appear on "best of" lists of influential media.
AG: On a new topic, why is having a diverse culture important?
RS: That's an easy question. Our world, the world of business, is increasingly diverse, and leading it is going to require comfort in working with and leading diverse teams. So, it's not just a moral imperative for us but also critical to the success of our mission of producing the business leaders of tomorrow that we seek out students with a variety of backgrounds, interests, talents, and goals, and who are socially, ethnically, and economically diverse.
It's why we have established programs like the Breakthrough Scholars and Berkley Scholars in the Undergraduate College; and the Fertitta Veterans and Advancing Women in Business in the MBA program; and it's why we established Stern's first-ever Office for Diversity and Inclusion led by our Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Victor Mullins. And, by the way, Victor is doing fantastic work! (Learn more about Victor Mullins.)
AG: Speaking from the alumni side, Stern has seen record fundraising levels, the best in the School’s history. What do you attribute this to?
RS: Alumni have stepped up big, in all kinds of ways over the past five years. They’ve given generously at all levels, but also in how much they’ve volunteered their time.
As I speak to our alumni, they’ve all expressed an excitement in where we’re going and in partnering with us and our students on that journey. There's a passion for paying it forward, yes, but also a keen interest in areas of relevance in the business world where we are on the forefront—from sustainability and human rights to real estate and entrepreneurship, just to name a few.
One of the enjoyable aspects of my job is engaging with alumni and talking to them about the School. The goodwill for Stern and the extent to which they care about their alma mater is lovely to see.
AG: Let’s peel back the layers a bit on Raghu Sundaram himself. How would your colleagues describe you?
RS: I don't know, you should ask them! But I do remember one memorable comment one of our Vice Deans made about me at a happy hour get together some years ago: "He starts five minutes late and wants it completed yesterday." No, I don't know if that was meant as a compliment!
Photo: Dean Raghu Sundaram talks with Full-Time MBA students during a LAUNCH event at Ellis Island
AG: You mentioned earlier you were part of the faculty before you became Dean. How did your academic career shape you as a leader?
RS: As an academic you’re always arguing the case, persuading people to try something new. A large part of this role is making a strong case, because what we do is hard work, and people have to really be committed. So, in large part I have become Stern’s biggest cheerleader.
Photo: Dean Raghu Sundaram speaks at NYU Stern
AG: Stern’s progress under your leadership is truly inspiring. One last question … how are you thinking about what’s possible in the next five years?
RS: Oh, my. Five years into the future? I've no idea! But here is one thing I will bet on: we will remain in continual reinvention and improvement mode, constantly challenging ourselves to be better.
Change is Stern’s deepest tradition.