Almost 20 years ago, I graduated from the Western Business School. At the time, it was clearly ranked in the Top 20 in the world for Business Schools. At one point, I remember reading we were the top ranked non-US school. At the time, Western positioned itself as the “Harvard of Canada” and it was clearly the best business school in Canada. Harvard was HBS, Western was WBS. Harvard was the #1 publisher of cases, Western was the #2 publisher. It was the hardest to get into and the easiest to get out of, with a high paying, upwardly mobile job. The alumni were the who’s who of Canadian business and was infiltrating the US business landscape as well. The most miraculous thing is that I paid a tuition of only $2,300 per year in 1994. It was a public institution with over 90% of the tuition funded by the government. But students now pay $90,000 for an MBA, and some the most recent rankings have Western #78 in the world.
What went wrong?
There were two major trends in business schools that happened in the 1980s and 1990s.
- The first was the trend of putting a cute little name on the school. Dartmouth became Tuck, Duke became Fuqua, Virginia became Darden and so on. Yet, Harvard remained the Harvard Business School. Coincidently, sports arenas followed a similar annoying trend.
- Business Schools started to become obsessed with Magazine rankings. The rankings forced business schools to move from “Sweat Shop B-School” to “Adventure Camp B-School”. Instead of the dreaded 48 hour finance assignment, schools were sending students on white water rafting trips.
Western looked at these two trends and said “we’ll do just one of these” but they picked the wrong one. They re-named the school, yet remained a sweat shop for a few years past the trend.
Western took a $16 Million cheque from a wealthy family and changed the name from the Western Business School (WBS) to The Richard Ivey School of Business. (TRISOB–actually no one every used the acronym) When you are the clear #1 brand in your market, does it make sense to change your name? I’d bet my beloved Marketing Professor Roger Moore would have convinced our class that it was a crazy thing to do. I’m not sure if they were happy with the last name of “Ivey” finally getting them in to the “Ivy” league, but the spelling difference does make it just plain weird.
At the same time, Western decided to ignore the whole rankings trend. Who needs rankings when you’re the clear #1 in your market? For a few years, Western decided not to even submit data to the magazines, figuring they didn’t need them. I remember reading the top 10 Canadian Business Schools and didn’t even see Western. There was a little asterisk at the bottom that said “Western did not participate in this survey”. Western also ignored the “adventure camp” style MBA, opting for the hard edge case study method. Even up to the early 1990’s, Western used to give students up to twelve 48-hour assignments in first year, only reducing it when they saw how many nervous break-downs they were causing. I was lucky in 1994, that we only had 4 of these 48-hour assignments and my wife even pitched in on one of them.
Strategy is all about choices, and Western made the wrong choices.
The naming of Western University
Like most business schools, the Western Business School was just a part of the University of Western Ontario. The University has been around since 1878, educating many of the great Canadians of business, politics and sports as well as both Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize Winners. With that richness in history, changing the name should not be taken lightly.
The University of Western Ontario (UWO) has recently changed their name to Western University (yet still UWO). How did they decide on the new name? They started with the wrong question. They did a survey where they asked the students “What do you call the school?” and overwhelmingly the students answered “Western”. With that little information, they said “that’s it, we’re changing the name to Western University”. Well, not quite, but sort of. The legal name and the diplomas still say University of Western Ontario. And if you go to uwo.com you can read about Western University.
The real question they should have asked was: “Do you want to change the name of your school?” Just because we like to call it Western, doesn’t mean we want to change the name. I grew up with a friend who we called “Bubba” who is now a lawyer and goes by the name James. He doesn’t have “Bubba” on his business card. The point being: just because people called it “Western” doesn’t mean you have to change the name of a 125 year old institution. Yes, you can put “Western” on the sweatshirts you sell or the Football Jersey’s. Yes, people will still answer “Western” when you ask them “where do you go to school?”
Richard Ivey Becomes Ivey
I just received an email saying that The Richard Ivey School of Business has become the Ivey Business School. While Western has been purple for 125 years, somehow Ivey decided to go with green.
Now the University has convinced (or forced) Ivey to add in the new purple shield, now giving the logo a combination of green and purple. Hey Ivey, why not just put Ivey in purple?
I guess it’s too late, but I might still beg the Ivey family to say:
“You know what, it’s been a bumpy 13 year ride, keep the cheque, but let’s just go back to the Western Business School” And maybe make a change of the school to the University of Western Ontario while you’re at it.
I guess it could be worse. York’s MBA is called Schulich. A decade later, the “Schulich” name is fairly well known for business students. However, “Schulich” is also the name of the Engineering school in Calgary, the name of the Law School at Dalhousie, the name of the Music School at McGill, the name of the Med School at Western and the name of the Education school at Nipissing. So, if you ask “Did you go to Schulich?” the answer has a high likelihood of getting positive response. Just don’t ask them to do your taxes. While Schulich has admirably given away of ton of cash in support of schools, they sure don’t know anything about branding.
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