Dezsö Horváth: The world is not enough

After 24 years at Schulich, Dezsö Horváth is Canada’s longest-serving business school dean. He didn’t get there by thinking small.

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(Photo: Chris Woods)

Not many years ago, Dezsö Horváth, the longtime dean of the Schulich School of Business, found himself in the office of a high-level functionary in the Indian government. On its own, this was not an unusual place for Horváth to be. In his more than 30 years at York University, he has pushed himself and his school relentlessly abroad. But on this day, things were not going for the dean as they usually did.

Having set up an office in Mumbai in 2005, Horváth was now hoping to convince the Indian government to let Schulich grant degrees in partnership with a local university. But the official was not co-operating—at least not in the way Horváth hoped he would. “Usually when I have visits, I give a symbolic present, a pen or a tie or whatever,” Horváth said in a recent interview from his office at York. “But this guy, he more or less told me, ‘I give you accreditation, you pay me.’” The man even specified how much he wanted in exchange for the favour, Horváth says.

Horváth said a polite “no, thank you,” sent the man the standard symbolic gift and went over his head, straight to the federal minister. “He ended up in jail six months later,” Horváth says, “and I get my accreditation.”

This year, Dezsö Horváth became the longest-serving dean of any Canadian business school. From a relatively sedate program on a quiet campus in north Toronto when he was appointed in 1988, he has built Schulich into one—if global rankings are to believed—that rivals the world’s best. He has done so, according to those who know him, in no small part thanks to an unflappable belief in his own vision—part of which he demonstrated that day in India.

Long before globalization passed from buzzword to business fact, Horváth was preaching its virtues. And that, more than anything, explains the path he has taken Schulich down. On the day he interviewed for his job in 1988, he says he told the hiring committee one thing: “If you choose me, you choose the global marketplace.” And choose it they did. Given where the Schulich School is today, it’s hard to argue they made the wrong pick.

In many ways, Horváth was uniquely suited to the role of international business evangelist for York. He was born in the 1940s in a small town near Hungary’s border with Austria. The village was linguistically divided, as were his parents. (His mother was Austrian, his father Hungarian.) After the revolution in 1956, the Horváths fled Hungary and settled in Sweden, exposing the young Dezsö to his third native culture. He continued his schooling there and eventually earned a degree in electrical engineering before starting his career.

Horváth, however, was not long for the private sector. The company he joined after graduating encouraged him to go back to school, telling him a business degree would put him on the fast track to management. His master’s degree, though, soon morphed into a PhD. Afterward, he returned to the private sector, working on global strategy for a pulp and paper company. But before long, he was again back in school, this time working on a second PhD, in strategy.

By the early 1970s, Horváth was one of Sweden’s most promising young business educators. He had a Swedish wife and family, and a career in Swedish academia seemed set. But Horváth says he was not entirely happy in the country that took him in. “In Sweden, I had to become more Swedish than the Swedes themselves to be accepted,” he says. “Swedes like to tell you they are open-minded. Well, they’re not. If you were not a Swede, you had difficulties.”

When an opportunity came to try something new, Horváth jumped on it. In 1976, an envoy from what was then the York Faculty of Administrative Studies invited Horváth to spend a semester in Toronto. The following winter, a second envoy convinced him (“convinced, actually, my wife,” Horváth says) to go back to Canada on a more permanent basis.

Not everyone at York knew what to make of Horváth back then. “We all talk about Dezsö being out on the far edge of the curve,” says Paul Alofs, who did his MBA at York in 1982–83. “Here was this guy with this heavy Swedish accent” preaching the gospel of the global markets at a time when few others were.

Still, Horváth rose quickly within the ranks at York. By the early ’80s, he was chairing the school’s strategy department. A few years later he became associate dean. In 1988, when the school’s then dean stepped down, Horváth put his name forward as a possible replacement.

Horváth’s pitch to the hiring committee was simple, if bold. “If I’m going to be dean, not only should we have the ambition to be the best school in Canada—certainly among the very best—but also among the best in the world,” he told them. “And unless we can do that, I said, I would not be interested.” At the time, it was a pretty audacious notion. There were no serious global MBA rankings back then, but if there had been, it’s safe to assume York would not have made many lists.

Horváth, though, had a plan. To raise its profile, York needed a niche, he believed, and for him, that meant going international. Within two years of his appointment, York had launched its International MBA program, which included mandatory study-abroad sessions. After the Soviet Union fell, Horváth was quick to move into eastern Europe and Russia, developing an east-west exchange program that brought in executives from the newly capitalist states. Around the same time, as part of a small consortium of Canadian schools, York began offering MBA education through universities in China.

But international expansion wasn’t everything. Immediately after he was hired as dean, Horváth also set up a series of task forces to look at how the school could evolve its teaching. He also went about raising money so he could hire more staff and offer more programs. That’s part of the reason why today nearly a third of all Schulich professors are endowed chairs. “He was always careful to hire really good people,” says Jim Gillies, who was the first dean of the York business school. “I think he was kind of the view that if he couldn’t get a first-class person, he wouldn’t hire anybody at all.”

Gillies cites Horváth’s appointment as “a real turning point for the school. He had such a drive,” he says. For Horváth himself, though, the real hinge moments for the program started in the mid 1990s. That’s when businessman Seymour Schulich donated a then-unprecedented $15 million and gave the school its new name. Around the same time, the business school opened a downtown campus to offer executive education. (“I was just tired of hearing from U of T: ‘We are the downtown university. York is out in the boondocks. Why would you take a program out there?’” Horváth says.) In the mid-’90s, meanwhile, Ontario deregulated tuition fees, allowing the school to raise its prices and bring in more revenue. That move also made possible the launch of Schulich’s joint executive MBA program with the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.

As for the future, Horváth says he has plenty of work left to do. Under his leadership, Schulich has doggedly courted good rankings from the international press, and he intends to keep those high. (And to Canadian schools who ignore business school rankings, Horváth has a simple message: “It doesn’t matter to me. I am not competing with them. Who cares?”) The school also recently launched a new MBA specialization in mining, and plans to offer at least two other new specializations in the coming year or two. He also has no plans to abandon Schulich’s international focus. “The traditional MBA is saturating in the developed world,” he says. If business schools want to continue to grow, he believes, they’ll have to do it in developing markets.

For Horváth and Schulich, nowhere is that growth more important than India. York was supposed to open a standalone campus in Hyderabad in 2013 that could grant Schulich degrees. But legislation that would allow that to happen has so far stalled. Horváth accepted a new three-year term as dean this past summer, he says, at least partially to see the Indian project through.

Still, even with the delays, Horváth doesn’t see the Indian experiment as a disappointment so far. In fact, when asked if he has any regrets from his 24 years in charge, he struggles to come up with a one. “You could argue India, maybe,” he says. “We planned on opening the new facility in 2013 and the Indian government still hasn’t delivered. And that’s the nature of the global environment. We didn’t fail. We just adjusted to new realities.”