Outposts of Thunderbird

Sonoran Desert landscapes have marked Thunderbird’s campus near Phoenix, Arizona, since the doors opened in 1946. Yet much has changed at the world’s fi rst school of international business. The control tower remains a fi xture at the heart of campus, but pines and palms now dwarf the World War II landmark rather than runways and open spaces. Other changes are more significant. Enrollment is more diverse, serving a broad mix of full-time students and working professionals from 66 countries. Courses have been modernized, and the menu of programs has expanded. Since 1998 some T-birds have spent most of their study time online or at remote sites far from the Arizona campus. The one constant has been the school’s focus on global management. This will not change as Thunderbird moves forward with plans to open at least five overseas outposts as part of its growth plans in the coming years.

The global expansion is part of a planned strategic alliance with Laureate Education, Inc., which will take effect following approval from Thunderbird’s accreditation body, the Higher Learning Commission. The historic Arizona campus will remain the hub for all Thunderbird programs, but some students will study in Paris, France, at a Thunderbird outpost less than one kilometer from the Eiffel Tower. Other Thunderbird students will experience new bases in São Paulo, Brazil; Madrid, Spain, or Santiago, Chile. Eventually, an additional campus will open at a yet-to-bedetermined site in Asia.

All of the outposts will be staffed with Thunderbird site directors, along with Thunderbird professors hired by Thunderbird. Students will be able to move across common programs on multiple continents, making Thunderbird global in location to match its already global faculty, students and alumni. Brand standards, curriculum, and admissions guidelines will be set in Arizona, and new program design, development and evaluation will be led by Thunderbird faculty.

Thunderbird President Larry Edward Penley, Ph.D., says the result will be greater scale and impact for Thunderbird, without sacrifi cing academic control. “Thunderbird has always been global,” he says. “These international campuses will deliver on what the Thunderbird mission has always been — but with an expanded global footprint for Thunderbird.” The initial outposts will give Thunderbird deeper penetration in Europe and Latin America, where enrollment has lagged in recent years.

“Thunderbird has been intentionally trying to build its student body in those locations,” Penley says. “Part of the idea here is to place campuses in those locations where we would like to recruit more students and to diversify the student body.” Most Thunderbird students in a planned undergraduate program, which is still in its conceptual phase, likely will complete the majority of their studies at one or more of these international campuses (see related article).

Meanwhile, graduate students will have increased opportunities to study abroad and connect with employers in diverse markets. In both cases the focus will remain on the employability of aspiring global managers who come to Thunderbird to launch their careers. “Our greatest desire is to give students the skills and knowledge they need to obtain great jobs, to help launch them onto productive career paths,” Penley says. “At the end of the day, it’s about educating managers and leaders who can work at the global edge.”

A joint service provider, established in collaboration with Laureate through the planned alliance, will be led by Laureate Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives David Graves. The joint venture, which initially will be equally
owned by Thunderbird and Laureate, will enable Thunderbird to gain increased competitiveness in a variety of ways that anticipate and address the transformative higher education landscape. The joint venture will support students who are studying at Thunderbird’s remote campuses, but it will not admit the students, hire faculty to teach them, or grant degrees. Those duties will remain Thunderbird’s academic responsibility.


Besides creating new opportunities for Thunderbird students, the permanent outposts will provide bases for alumni engagement — especially for T-birds who live nearby.

“We are very excited about the idea of connecting with alumni in these locations,” says Terri Nissen, Thunderbird Senior Director of Alumni Relations. “We’d like them to come to the campuses, when we’re ready, to meet the teams and help us replicate the Thunderbird mystique at each site.”

As Thunderbird moves forward with hiring faculty and recruiting students, each campus will reach out to local alumni to help transfer the school’s DNA. “We want to have constructive dialogue with our alumni,” Nissen says. “One idea is to form advisory committees within the alumni chapters at each location to help with student mentoring, student recruitment, and getting involved in evaluating students for internships and job placements.”

Penley says these efforts will help build continuity across the Thunderbird network. “It is, after all, Thunderbird that is expanding across the globe,” he says. “We very much would like to foster positive relationships with alumni in all those locations, and we see real benefi t for current students from early engagement with alumni.”

Current students also will play a role in assuring that the Thunderbird DNA is embedded in the new campuses by participating with faculty in new program development and curricular design committees. “We want each campus to be as much a part of Thunderbird as the main hub in Arizona,” Penley says.


The new campuses gradually will enable some graduate students to start in their home locations and then rotate to the Arizona campus. Others will start in Arizona, rotate abroad, and then return to Arizona to fi nish their degrees, as they do now at temporary sites used by Thunderbird. “Thunderbirds are naturally adventurous,” Penley says. “The new campuses will play well to that spirit.”

The Laureate alliance already has created new opportunities for Thunderbird MBA students, even before the rollout of the permanent outposts. Katherine Hutton, Thunderbird Senior Director of Academic Operations and Programming, says Laureate’s network of 71 partner institutions in 29 countries has helped Thunderbird expand its study abroad menu. “It’s an entry point to new markets and new environments for us,” Hutton says. “These campuses are exceptional in technology, design and amenities.”

Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan, Italy, has opened its doors to Thunderbird Global MBA Online students, who came in October 2013 for a Regional Business Environment course focused on the design industry. The
Thunderbird students used Nuova Accademia classrooms during their weeklong course, taught by Thunderbird Professor Olufemi Babarinde, Ph.D. “Our hosts in Milan have been very responsive and helpful,” Hutton says. “And they have tremendous local business connections.”

Full-time MBA students also will use Laureate partner institutions as bases during their modules abroad in spring 2014. Hutton says she will continue to build new Laureate relationships even after the permanent outposts are operational. “Students will still have opportunities for six-week modules abroad, fi eld seminars and Winterims,” Hutton says.


Thunderbird’s distance learning options, which typically serve working professionals in their mid-30s with considerable experience as professionals and managers, remain attractive to prospective students who otherwise could not leave their jobs and living situations to enroll full-time in traditional programs on Thunderbird’s Arizona campus.

Yet the last few years have produced many eLearning innovations that have not been fully incorporated into Thunderbird’s hybrid programs, which were created some years ago. Moreover, the industry has seen increasing acceptance of online business education in some global markets. The trend is backed by emerging research, which documents the effectiveness of online education — especially among participants who are increasingly accustomed to mobile access, social media and just-in-time learning via the Internet.

Via the joint venture, Thunderbird will be able to access temporarily the instructional and media design support it needs to develop more sophisticated online educational programs. Although market research remains to be completed (another opportunity that can be met by the joint venture), it appears that there may be a market for online MBA and Master of Science programs that address the needs of 20-somethings who cannot attend a traditional on-campus program in Arizona. This market is represented by prospective students in an earlier career stage than Thunderbird’s current online students — and more similar to the traditional MBA and Master of Science students who now study on campus.


Thunderbird has a much-admired history and occupies a special place in international business education. The school’s uniqueness is evident in its exclusive focus on international management, in its faculty dedicated to international scholarly contributions, and in its commitment to learning about business within the cultural, social and political context of diverse regions.

As a relatively small, specialized business school, Thunderbird has enormous appeal to aspiring global leaders and to global business recruiters who desire graduates with the capacity to live at the edge of the globe, who are capable of working on their own, and who have the knowledge and skills to deliver value in diverse contexts.

“Thunderbird can compete as the leader in global business education in the face of the transformation of higher education, but only if it expands its capacity to deliver on a global scale,” Penley says. “That is what the alliance is all about.”

Caption: The Eiffel Tower rises less than one kilometer from the planned site for a Thunderbird campus in Paris, France. A planed strategic alliance will allow Thunderbird to establish a network of permanent outposts in Asia, Europe and South America. (BOAZ MEIRI)

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