The Changing Of The MBA Guards At Harvard & Stanford
Maria |
October 1, 2022

Just like a lightning strike, how bizarre is it for two of the most prestigious b-school chief MBA admission officers to announce their departure on the same day?

In this episode of Business Casual, let’s hear what our hosts have to say about this event as they discuss some of Chad Losee’s and Kirsten Moss’s contributions to their respective institutions over the course of their careers as chief directors of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, respectively.

Is there truly a connection between these events, or is it just a coincidence? What other factors might exist besides the large number of stakeholders and its crucial role being accentuated by its prominent position? What possible influence did the pandemic have on their decision to depart?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:06.970] – John

 Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. This week has been quite an interesting week in the field of MBA admissions. On one day, we had the announcements from both Harvard and Stanford that they were going to lose their chief MBA admission officers. How rare is that? It’s like lightning strikes. And not only did they announce their departure on the same day, they also outlined their same timetables for their departures. Both Chad Losee, the managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, and Kirsten Moss, who holds a similar title at Stanford Graduate School of Business, will be leaving their jobs by year end. So I want to ask, let’s go to the former Head of Admissions at INSEAD for her thoughts about why in the world would these two people leave on the same day and on the same timetable? And what does it say, if anything, about MBA admissions at top level these days?

[00:01:24.280] – Caroline

We could speculate that there’s something fishy going on, given the bizarre timing, but I think that most likely it’s probably a coincidence. It’s interesting that we have seen quite a changing of the guard in MBA admissions over the past few months right. With several key staff resigning from other schools and moving on to other positions for MBA admissions at top schools, I think the pandemic was an extremely stressful period for MBA admissions. Traditionally, MBA admissions is not a business that changes incredibly rapidly from one month to the next. Right? I mean, they have some predictable cycles and there are changes and trends that come and go, but it’s not something that is subject to such rapid change as many other industries. And the pandemic was a huge shock and made life very stressful with the sort of uncertainty in the pipeline. And it’s still a difficult time. Right. It’s come out of the pandemic, but now there’s a downturn and application volume. So I think that it has been a challenging period. And also whilst working in MBA missions is fantastic. And I absolutely loved working at INSEAD. And when I was thinking of moving on, I looked at other opportunities in the school and there was really nothing else that I wanted to do at business school.

[00:02:56.600] – Caroline

Right. I mean. To me. MBA admissions is such an exciting position to be in and I really loved the different aspects of the role. But there can be stresses. And I would imagine that those could be amplified at a school like Stanford. GSB and HBS because you do have so many stakeholders to deal with and it’s a very visible role and such a critical function for the school. And there are lots of stakeholders faculty. Alumni. Current students. Et cetera. Corporate partners. Who all have different views about what you should be doing and what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. And get cross when things change. And then other people get cross if they don’t change and so they all come knocking at your door and that can be difficult to deal with. And I do think that whilst you note in your article about this, John. Kirsten was someone who is very visible in the market and very happy to engage with the public. Chad was someone who’s much more discreet and might have felt more uncomfortable in a role that has such high visibility and requires dealing with so many different stakeholders.

[00:04:16.020] – Caroline

And so perhaps the role that he’s going into, which may be a little bit relates more to his previous experience in consulting and perhaps doesn’t have the same requirements of organizational politics and stakeholder management that might be more comfortable for him than such a high visibility role at HBS.

[00:04:41.570] – John

Yeah, that’s really a good point. And I should point out that Chad Losee is going to Yale University to work in the Provost office in a strategy role, which of course, is more of a behind the scenes kind of job as an advisor to the Provost on big time strategy for the university. It’s a great job and also follows very clearly his desire to do that because while he was Managing Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, he was also earning a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania. They have a rather unique program that in fact, the dean at the Garden School at the University of Virginia went through to help him transition from McKinsey, where he was a senior partner, into academia. And as you pointed out, there’s been a lot of turnover. Kate Smith at Kellogg, Amanda Carlson at Columbia, Soojin Kwon and Diane Economy at Michigan Ross now Chad Losee and Kirsten Moss. It’s like, no one wants this job. Maria.

[00:05:55.310] – Maria

We still got Blair. We still got Blair at Wharton. God bless you, Blair. Absolutely. One of the schools is keeping an amazing bit of admissions. Sherry Hubert is still at Duke. Anyway, there are lots of people that are incredible in this job. But yeah, it sure does seem like a whole bunch of people are resigning all at once. And it’s so interesting to speculate, right, because I feel like to sort of build on what Caroline was saying. Yeah, I think that it’s probably a job with so many different stakeholders, but I can’t help but wonder if you also feel like your hands are tied in some way where if you come in and you’re like, I’ve got this great idea, guys, like, let’s get rid of the typical interview and replace it with a team based discussion. Maybe some schools are like, okay, cool, let’s try it. And maybe other schools are like, no, this is the way we have always done admissions. And I wonder sometimes if people do want to make changes in the admissions process and their hands are tied. Or like Caroline said, maybe we want you to change more and you’re not changing enough.

[00:06:59.660] – Maria

And I’m sure it’s probably a lot of politics. And I also wonder if after a while I think what’s interesting about the job that Chad is taking is that I wonder if you deal with so many, he’s going to be dealing with a lot of different strategic issues that the entire Yale University as a whole is facing that might be a little bit more variety. I wonder if as the head of admissions, like after a certain point you’re like, okay, it’s this again. Like, okay, the same kids, the same resume, the same person who’s been at bay for two years and then did private equity for two. Like, there’s a part of me that wonders if after a while you start to obviously there are going to be unique people in every applicant pool, but after a while I wonder if the job just sort of gets to be like, okay, here we go again. And if that’s the case, if there might be especially for someone like Chad who is young and driven, maybe after a point he’s like, okay, you know what? I got this check. Do I understand admissions? I understand admissions.

[00:07:57.410] – Maria

Check. I got the admissions thing down. Now let me look at how I can make a bigger impact on a university as an institution as a whole, looking at other topics.

[00:08:07.110] – John

True. He’s going to go to a great job. I also wonder how aggravating is it to get the call from the senior partners at McKinsey, Bane, BCG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, J. P. Morgan, who say, hey, I recruit all these students. I wrote this recommendation for this incredible person and you rejected them. How the hell could you do that? So you got the pressure from a major employer, from a very senior level executive who obviously wrote a very positive recommendation for a candidate that they believe in, and you can’t accept all of them. You’re trying to craft a diverse class, but you’ve got to catch out for it and you got to entertain that phone call and you got to appear understanding and sympathetic. Caroline, imagine you were in this position at times when you’re head of admissions at INSEAD.

[00:08:58.570] – Caroline

Yeah, for sure. There are recommenders who think that they know who you should have taken. And it could be that you’ve taken someone from the firm but not somebody else, and they think that you took the wrong person. Right. That can happen. But they don’t necessarily have the full picture of what admissions is evaluating. They have the perspective of the current employer and they see that person in certain contexts, but they don’t have the same information necessarily that the admissions office has. And also at a school like in Seattle, do you get pressure as well from the admissions interviewers? Because there’s 3000 volunteer alumni who do the interviews at INSEAD, and that’s not the case at Harvard, but it is the case that stands for GSB. And they can get very upset as well if you don’t admit someone who they recommended for admissions. Right. Sometimes they feel like they are the gatekeeper and they’re not. It’s one data point that is being evaluated. We look at a lot of information from the discussion that transpires from the interviews. Right? But that’s one piece of the puzzle that is evaluated by the admissions committee. And so the interview is not the final deciding factor, but sometimes the interviewers think it is.

[00:10:24.360] – Maria


[00:10:24.630] – Caroline

And that can be complicated at schools like in Sierra or Stanford, where the alumni is so heavily involved in that process.

[00:10:31.860] – John

And at many schools you have what is often referred to as the Dean’s list. Now, whether this is apocryphal or not, I think it does exist in many schools. It’s basically the dean sends a list to the head of admissions and there are people on there he wants into the class. Now, if it’s Phil Knight son or daughter at Stanford, or if it’s Michael Bloomberg’s son or daughter or nephew, and they’re on the Dean’s list and you just got to swallow your pride and let them in, because that’s the game. Let’s face it. Yes, people are evaluated on the merits mostly, but there are some where I think it’s fair to say that’s not true at all. And that’s kind of additional pressure. And all of this has occurred also at a time which you mentioned earlier through the pandemic, which has been a difficult time at Harvard Business School. Chad made what I considered to be a courageous decision to allow unlimited deferments of anyone who was accepted in 2020. And so many people accepted that basically that invitation, that he enrolled the smallest incoming class at Harvard Business School in decades. And then when the worst of the Pandemic was over and those deferrals came to roost, he had to enroll the two largest incoming classes in history this fall and last fall, which puts a lot of pressure on the faculty, on the curriculum, on the schedule, on the facilities.

[00:12:15.710] – John

And obviously it’s going to make some people less than happy when you have to teach over 1000 MBAs incoming instead of $900. So there’s all that and then there’s the increased pressure on diversity and inclusion with whatever the result is. There is no doubt that this has become a major priority for US. Business schools. In particular. Stanford has taken a really leadership approach in this field by publishing annual reports about their progress on this dimension, the diversity dimension. Harvard has taken a lot of lumps and a lot of criticism from former black African faculty members who have basically lambasted the school for not doing enough. So there’s this pressure from all these different quarters, and I can imagine that you can only read so many applications and feel good about it. Maria, do you have some other theories as to why we would lose two Harvard and Stanford on the same day? Do you think they were talking to each other and saying, hey, let’s do this together, right?

[00:13:31.270] – Maria

Like Stelma and Louise driving Alfa to the sunset onto new, exciting adventures. Except it’s not a cliff, it’s a better job. No, I think it is just a completely weird coincidence. I can’t imagine that the two of them have enough free time on their hands to just be I mean, I’m sure that they probably I would think that they might maybe talk to each other from time to time. I have friends who are other admissions consultants and I know that we regularly will at least vent to one another, sort of off the record about peculiar stresses of the peculiar thing that we do for a living. And so I’m sure that admissions officers themselves might sort of secretly vent to one another about this donor is pressuring me to take this candidate and I can’t stand it. Who knows what. But in terms of saying, okay, I’m going to quit on this day and you’re going to quit on this day and let’s hold hands and jump together, I don’t know that necessarily happened, although that would make for like a good script of some sort. One of my take on it is that now that the admissions process was changed so much by COVID to a point where I think a lot of the previous sacred cows and admissions that are sort of unquestionable.

[00:14:52.100] – Maria

Like. Okay. You have to send your staff out to attend these MBA fairs all over the world and you have to spend hours in a hotel ballroom behind your little table with your little brochures. And you have to send people to every city. And maybe, like during COVID, all of a sudden you didn’t do that anymore because you didn’t have that. You couldn’t do it. And maybe now, as the world is sort of getting back to, quote, unquote, normal, maybe I don’t know, if I were in their shoes, I’d be like, wait a minute. We just proved for two years that we didn’t have to, and now you’re sending me out on the road again. And don’t get me wrong, Kuala Lumpur is a wonderful city, but I kind of want to be with my kids and I want to be with my family or my pets or whatever it is. And so I almost wonder if part of it is sort of looking at the world, going back to, quote, unquote, normal and seeing what sort of a sense of maybe dread. But I’m also probably just projecting entirely when it comes to that.

[00:15:46.390] – Caroline

I think that’s quite possible, though, that in the admissions team there is sort of a big site. The thought of all the travel starting again because it can be exhausting, global travel, and it’s not the only industry it wouldn’t be the only industry where there’s resistance to going back to life, how it was prepandemic. So it may not be the case, particularly for Chad or Kirsten. I don’t know how much travel they did individually, but I would imagine that in some admissions teams, there are a lot of discussions happening right now about how this is managed going forward, and there may be some resistance to going back to how things were prepandemic.

[00:16:32.090] – John

And Chad is a family man. He has four sons, all young. He himself is pretty young, having gotten his MBA from Harvard, I think, in 2013. So he demands of the job are pretty serious, even if you’re not doing a lot of traveling. I wonder how many hours a week you put in Caroline and INSEAD. I bet you were 60 to 80 a week, easy, right?

[00:16:58.850] – Caroline

Well, it depends on the deadlines and so on.

[00:17:03.640] – John

INSEAD always has deadlines.

[00:17:05.830] – Caroline

Yeah, it does. And so, yes, it can be extremely demanding, and it’s not always the most sociable hours, for sure. I was quite glad I didn’t see that we did have several deadlines because it spreads things out more over the year, whereas at schools like Harvard and Stanford, where Harvard doesn’t even have the Round Three right. But the pressure is all in a more concentrated period of the year. So I would imagine that that is more challenging in some ways than my life was at inferred where we had now the school has eight deadlines, right? And we used to have seven deadlines, and it’s been extended to eight. I like to be able to spread things out more evenly over the year because it’s sort of a constant process rather than this build up and then this crazy, overwhelming volume that you have to deal with in a very short period.

[00:18:02.840] – John

Let’s talk about the impact that both of these officers had on admissions at their schools. So one of the things that Chad did early on was eliminate Round Three deadlines. And the argument is that you get very few people and it doesn’t really matter all that much. I disagree. I think Chad, by eliminating Round Three, he lost access to a lot of exceptional candidates who, for one reason or another, couldn’t apply in Round One or Round Two, and therefore applied to other schools. And he had lost the chance to get some very good candidates, and he lost it to Stanford, to Wharton, to Kellogg, to Columbia, to Chicago Booth, MIT as well. I don’t think that that was a smart decision. This is me being the Monday morning quarterback, admittedly, but I think that was really not a great idea. The other thing that I think he did that was very stellar and it occurred in the past year, and sure, it’s a decision that really had to be made by higher ups, is that Harvard Business School made a commitment to provide an MBA for free, all costs covered for 10% of its incoming student body every single year.

[00:19:22.710] – John

Obviously, that 10% is composed mainly of deserving students who really need the money to take advantage of the education. On the plus side, that’s what I would put there. Now, I wonder, in terms of actual admissions and the essays being required, I don’t think there was really any change of substance other than the fact that he imposed a word limit on the one essay that Harvard has, which is, tell us more about yourself that we may not know, based on the application that you filed. Am I missing something?

[00:19:58.310] – Caroline

Not that I can think of. I do think, as you mentioned, losing the Round Three, you may have regretted that, especially with a pandemic. Right? And that was probably why they had to reduce the class size so much, because so many schools were still accepting people very late in 2020, and Harvard wasn’t able to do that because they had lost that Round Three. So I think that probably laid out right.

[00:20:28.500] – John

Wharton extended their deadlines, Kellogg extended their deadlines. Some of these schools were more willing to experiment with test optional policies during the pandemic when it was difficult to take a test. Harvard did not. Stanford did not either.

[00:20:43.370] – Caroline

And as you mentioned, I think it’s great for the students that they gave people that flexibility to defer, and therefore they had to cope with that fluctuation in class size. And that was, as you say, quite a brave move at the time. And other schools weren’t doing that, and other schools were criticized by students and admits for digging in their heels and being less flexible at a time when admits and students were suffering with the consequences of the pandemic. But as you said, it does create a huge number of logistical challenges to have that class size fluctuation. Right. Schools, program management, the faculty, all the logistics, it makes everything so much more complicated if you have a lot of fluctuation in the class size, career services, recruitment, everything. So I would imagine that that was challenging to manage, and possibly it wasn’t terribly popular internally.

[00:21:51.110] – John

Yeah. Maria from your standpoint. What about Kirsten Moss at Stanford?

[00:21:58.010] – Maria

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that Kirsten one of the things she introduced was the optional three essays in which, as an applicant, you can submit anywhere between zero to three additional little mini essays about leadership impact that you’ve had. And I think that that was a really smart move, although I’m sure it gave them a lot more work to do. But I think prior to that. When it was just primarily what matters most to you and why. And then the why Stanford question. I think a lot of people then felt a lot of pressure to make what matters most to me be my work accomplishments. Because I would think. Well. This is my chance to show off how amazing I am. And there’s no other place in the application for me to do it. And so I suspect that by giving people this outlet, kind of like this valve in which like, okay, don’t worry, you can tell us all about your leadership, just put it over here. I like to think that that made a little bit more room for the what matters most answers to be more authentic and more reflective and not let me use this as like a Trojan horse to try to sneak in what my accomplishments are by pretending that it’s some sort of deeply held value.

[00:23:04.710] – Maria

But really what I’m trying to do is to get my accomplishments across. So I thought that was a really big improvement to the application because I think it also gave some of the applicants to Stanford. I think some of the people who apply to Stanford might not necessarily realize I think a lot of people apply who aren’t necessarily qualified. But I also think conversely, there are some people who are super qualified who might not realize that they’re qualified. And I think forcing themselves to write a couple of specific little essays about leadership makes them, in some cases, realize, like, oh, maybe I actually have had quite a bit of impact on my community and my company and the world already. So I personally have seen that, I’ve seen some people get some more confidence in their candidacy once they sort of lay out those three essays and they’re like, oh, wait a minute, I’m like, See? You are amazing. And they’re like, oh yeah.

[00:23:53.630] – John

And it does coincide with her passion for leadership that she has worked on before at Egon Zender, the executive search firm, and elsewhere with her own consultancy, before returning to Stanford in the admissions role. And it is apparently what she wants to do in the future. A spokesperson at the school, when we ask what’s the reason for this decision? Simply said she wants to pursue her passion and that is leadership. So it makes sense that she would have added those questions. And I think it does provide more insight into an applicant’s motivations and preparedness for a rigorous and elite MBA program. Who is going to replace these two people in these two very important jobs? Any guesses? Maria, let’s start with you.

[00:24:48.960] – Maria

I don’t know who will, but I have some ideas of who I’d like to see. Okay, well, first of all, I think one of the nice things about HBS doing so much of its admissions internally, for example, as we mentioned before, the interviews are all done by internal staff, is that I think that I would like to think that they train up. That means that instead of having like 200 potential interviewers by only having like, a smaller group, I like to think that any one of those folks could presumably kind of step in in an interim role if needed. So there are a lot of folks that have been on the admissions team for years. Right? I mean, lives on the West Coast, but Hillary Caplan, some more drive, for example. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her or met her, but she’s on the West Coast. She does a lot of the West Coast interviews. She’s been with APS for 15 years or so. I don’t think she would move to Boston in terms of I would love to see Sherry Hubert from Duke. I have encountered Sherry when she was at Georgetown and when she was at Duke.

[00:25:48.910] – Maria

She hosted the AGAC conference a couple of years ago before the Pandemic. And I think she’s very good at what she does, and I would love to see her bring her perspective and the lens and her thoughtfulness to the role at HBS. And in terms of GSB, I don’t know, but maybe I don’t know if you guys know. So Luke Penia, who used to run admissions at Tuck, is now he went to go to Night Hennessey, which is a very specific sort of fellowship that Stanford offers overall, and a lot of business school students happen to get it right. It’s a very prestigious fellowship for graduate study there. And I almost wonder if maybe that was sort of a stepping stone and maybe he could transition over and maybe we’ll see Luke Penia again. And he’s also very good at being public. Right. When he was in charge of admissions at Tuck, he was active on social media. He was very open working with yeah, I think he would fill those shoes. Not that anyone could replace Kirsten, but I think he has the right sort of public persona, perhaps, to take that role.

[00:26:59.940] – John

Those are really good guesses. Maria, I have to say, you could.

[00:27:03.380] – Caroline

Have just saved the search committees a lot of time.

[00:27:07.170] – Maria

Please send check to Maria.

[00:27:10.710] – Caroline

Exactly my address.

[00:27:12.410] – Maria

I take venmo.

[00:27:16.690] – John

Let me also just say I want to give some credit to both Kirsten and to Chad during their time in the job. Six and a half years for Chad, five and a half years for Kirsten. They did improve the percentage of women enrolled at both Harvard and Stanford. Harvard, it went from 41% to 46% this year. Stanford, it went from 40% to 44% last year. Stanford’s class profile doesn’t come out for another week. I imagine we would see even another improvement in that 44% at Harvard with the 46%. That’s a record number this year. There’s also a record number of international students in the class at Harvard, 38% this year, compared to 34% before he took the job. And then you have at Stanford, the international crew is much higher, 47% last year compared to 40% when Kristen took the job. And I would suspect that 47% will actually increase as it has at all schools because of the decline in domestic apps. So this is a tough, grueling job. As we pointed out, there’s a lot of pressure on you. You disappoint more people than the numbers of people that you make happy, because at Stanford, 94% of the people who apply are getting turned down.

[00:28:59.030] – John

At Harvard, it’s roughly 90%, 89% getting turned down. And then you have those damn rankings. The rankings have worked in the favor in these recent years. Harvard has been a laggard for given its prestige and reputation and rankings for whatever that matters. But it may matter to people who are dual admits, because Stanford tends to win over Harvard and dual admits, that wasn’t always the case. So, really tough jobs, tough times. I think one thing that can be said for sure is that the quality of the students that both Chad and Kirsten admitted over their tenure as the heads of admission, terrific, fantastic quality, exceptional students, and great graduates. And that’s something that doesn’t tend to change when you’ve got a brand like Harvard and Stanford. How do you go wrong? How do you mess it up? I don’t think you can, really. Maria, you can’t mess that up, can you?

[00:30:11.590] – Maria

Are you asking if Maria could benefit?

[00:30:25.130] – John

She’s on the west coast. You can take over that role and do a hell of a job. And, Caroline, maybe you want to get back into this role yourself, down the road.

[00:30:38.360] – Maria

Yeah, I know you live really very short commute.

[00:30:41.410] – Caroline

I can just roll down the hill.

[00:30:42.570] – John

And Caroline, you can just move me on down to Stanford. You can move back to the East Coast, to your alma mater and take over. How about that?

[00:30:53.470] – Maria


[00:30:54.060] – Caroline

Another tip for the search committee. Their job is done.

[00:31:00.940] – John

There you have it. All right. Hey, thanks for listening, everybody. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You have been listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host, Caroline Diarte Edwards and Maria Wich Vila. Thanks again. See you next week.

The Changing Of The MBA Guards At Harvard & Stanford
Maria |
October 1, 2022


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