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Education as a unifying force
ILIAN Mihov was just a teenager - "probably 15 or 16", he recalls - when he first decided to pursue a career in academia. Torn between studying physics or philosophy at the university, he finally decided on a field that would give him the best of those two subjects.
"I wanted something that had words but also equations, and that was economics," the Bulgarian tells The Business Times in a recent hour-long interview.
The rest, as they say, is history. Professor Mihov is now two months shy of his 50th birthday and in his 20th year as an economics professor at Insead, where he is also its current dean.
It's been a steady climb to the top for the soft-spoken educator, having assumed the graduate business school's top post in October 2013 after serving a five-month stint as interim.
He earned his PhD in Economics at Princeton University in the United States in 1996 - under the mentorship of a certain Ben Bernanke, who would later go on to become the chairman of the US Federal Reserve - and joined Insead as an assistant professor shortly after. He moved to Singapore to teach macroeconomics in 2001.
Prof Mihov's decision to remain at Insead's Asia campus in Singapore after becoming dean, instead of relocating to France where his predecessors had all been based, became a talking point at that time.
Insead runs three full-fledged campuses in three different continents. The first is in the French commune of Fontainebleau and is known as the Europe campus. The Singapore campus opened in Ayer Rajah next to Fusionopolis in 2000, while the Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi began operations six years ago.
As Prof Mihov has stressed in earlier interviews, the fact that he chooses to operate out of Singapore - he is the first Insead dean to do so - is by no means an indication that Asia is regarded as more important than Europe.
The recognition of Insead as a top international business school, rather than a French or even a European one, is also growing, he says.
"We are very proud of our French roots and our European roots. We are also very proud of being here in Singapore. But when we think about our identity, what is Insead really? It is a global school," says Prof Mihov.
He spends time explaining how Insead ensures that the majority of its faculty or student population does not come from any particular country.
The current Master of Business Administration (MBA) cohort, for instance, is made up of people from 80 nationalities, with a third of them hailing from Asia.
Insead - which will mark its 60th birthday in 2019 - has a 50,000-strong alumni across 174 countries with 157 nationalities.
"It's normal that if an institution is located in a certain country, people associate it with that country. Cambridge is in the United Kingdom, so it is a British institution. But as soon as you come to Insead and you look at the students or professsors, you realise that the entire organisation doesn't have a national identity," says Prof Mihov.
That was the vision that Insead's founder, Georges Doriot, had back in the 1950s when, as a professor and graduate at Harvard Business School in Boston, he aspired to establish an institution in Europe to promote management education.
After the end of World War II, Mr Doriot, a French-born naturalised American, saw a need for France to have a business school like Harvard in order to contribute to a rapidly unifying Europe.
"He viewed Insead as a place to promote peace and prosperity in Europe by bringing together people from different countries," says Prof Mihov.
"The Europeans were fighting one another every 10 to 15 years, there were big wars. The idea was to bring together people in a place that wasn't dominated by a certain nationality, where they can start building businesses and working together."
The Paris Chamber of Commerce eventually agreed to establish a European business school, and Insead was founded in 1957, taking in its first MBA intake two years later.
Fast forward nearly six decades, and the appeal and stature of the Insead brand is clear. This year, all three of its MBA programmes hold the number one ranking by the Financial Times in their respective categories: MBA, Executive MBA and Single School Executive MBA.
There are 1,300 students in the school's degree and PhD programmes, while more than 9,500 executives - many from multinationals such as Microsoft - take part in various executive education courses every year.
Research and teaching
Prof Mihov is also proud of the fact that Insead can count itself as a "prolific" research institution in addition to its strength in teaching.
He cites recent figures from the University of Texas in Dallas, which collected data on publications in the top academic journals in business. Last year, Insead's professors topped the list in the number of published articles with 48, above even Wharton (46) and Harvard Business School (44).
"This is very important for us, because it has created an institution that has very strong foundations in research. At the same time, our DNA has historically been to focus on teaching quality. We are able to combine deep research insights with good delivery in the classroom," he says.
While Insead has had its fair share of milestones over the years, Prof Mihov says that one of the main accomplishments was the "brave" decision to open a full fledged campus in Singapore to serve the Asia-Pacific region.
Singapore's late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was then senior minister, was the guest-of-honour at the inauguration in October 2000.
The pioneer Singapore MBA class was made up of 53 students from 26 countries. The opening of the Asia Campus Development campaign also raised 118 million euros (S$180.2 million, at today's exchange rate) from corporate and individual donations.
Last year, Insead also opened the S$55 million Leadership Development Centre here, a six-storey, 10,000 square metre building to meet the growing demand for management and leadership education in Asia.
"The school was very brave to open a campus in Singapore. We made the decision in 1997, and soon after there was the Asian Financial Crisis, the bursting of the dot.com bubble, and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). For the first six years, things were quite uncertain. Today, we look back and say the Singapore campus is a great success, and Singapore is now an integral part of Insead," says Prof Mihov.
"From day one, we maintained that Insead Singapore was not going to be a second-class campus. This is not a teaching outpost, or a place where people from France come here to teach and then go back," he adds.
Speaking of faculty, he recalls how it wasn't easy to hire professors at the beginning because of the relatively small size of the academic community in Singapore.
"When you're in the Europe campus in France, you can take a 50-minute flight to London where there are lots of other academic institutions. You can go to Spain or Germany or even to the US. But in Asia, the academic environment at that time was not what it is today," says Prof Mihov.
The ongoing development of Singapore's first three publicly-funded universities - the National University of Singapore, the Nanyang Technological University, and the Singapore Management University - helped raise the appeal of the Lion City in the global academic and research communities as well.
"There's a very lively research environment in our Singapore campus, there are many seminars and people who constantly talk about research. Our professors don't feel isolated. But it's also very important that there is a research environment outside of Insead as well," says Prof Mihov.
"In the first few years, it was difficult to hire professors, maybe six or seven at the start. But from 2005 or 2006, we reached a tipping point and now it's tough to stop them because everyone wants to come to Singapore. Academics are always looking for the right environment, and Singapore has improved dramatically in this respect."
The three-campus model that Insead prides itself on may be unique, but Prof Mihov maintains that ensuring that they operate smoothly and seamlessly is a complex task.
"Each campus creates more complexity. It's not just the investment per se, but the execution and running of the institutions. It's difficult. We try as best as we can to keep the school integrated. All our faculty meetings are conducted via video conferencing. When it was two campuses (France and Singapore), it was relatively easy. Now with Abu Dhabi on board, the TV screen is divided into four!" he says.
Prof Mihov discloses that there have been invitations by several countries over the years to establish another comprehensive Insead campus, although it's unlikely that there will be a fourth campus any time soon.
"Creating yet another campus will add even more complexity. I think that we are very happy with our campus in Singapore, and it serves the region very well - China, India, Australia and so on. I'm not sure we will have another campus in Asia," he says. The campus in Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is doing its part to cater to the demand in the Middle East as well as in East Africa.
If the stars had aligned themselves differently, Prof Mihov might not have become Insead dean at all, much less remained in academia.
In 2010, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced that Prof Mihov - then an economic adviser to Mr Borisov's government - would be appointed as the country's new deputy prime minister.
Prof Mihov admits he considered the offer very seriously, and he flew home to Bulgaria for three days for some initial discussions. He soon found out, however, that the rampant corruption in Bulgaria would make his life in politics a problematic one.
"I realised that I wouldn't be able to do anything because there was no will in the prime minister and his government to reform. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is a very corrupt country. It was recently ranked as the most corrupt nation in the European Union again," he says.
Asked if he harbours any regrets about spurning the opportunity to serve his country, Prof Mihov is adamant he made the right decision in the end.
"It was very tempting, of course, to go back, but the reality is you cannot do things (in politics) by yourself. You need the entire government behind you and there must be that level of support," he says.
The father of two daughters still returns to Bulgaria at least twice a year, once in the summer and again during Christmas. His parents still live there and his girls "enjoy the country more and more" with each visit.
"The older child is 16 and she speaks Bulgarian relatively well. The younger one is 13 and wants to learn the language. It's not a very useful language in the world, though!" he says with a chuckle.
A year after he started working in Singapore, Prof Mihov flew his family over to join him and the four of them are now permanent residents. His daughters are enrolled in an American school here.
Prof Mihov has just crossed the half-way mark of his five-year term as Insead dean, and there is an option to renew it for another five years. What he knows for sure is that once his tenure is up, he will go back to his first love, which is teaching.
"I remember a funny story when I was first being considered to be the dean. I had meetings with some of my colleagues and one of them, a professor in France, asked me if I would be a dean at another school after I was done at Insead? I said no, that has never been my intention. I want to go back to teaching and doing research and writing papers," he says.
Prof Mihov still teaches in the Executive MBA programme, and his most recent stint was four full days in March. Every now and then, he also fills in for his colleagues in the Executive Education programme, and he last did so in June 2015.
"I love teaching. I wish I had more time to invest in developing raw materials for my students, but right now I don't. I've taught in every programme at Insead, and I'm looking forward to spending more time in the classroom in the future," he says.
Before he hangs up his administration hat, Prof Mihov is crystal clear about the sort of legacy he hopes to leave behind when he eventually passes the baton to the next leader.
"My tenure as dean will end in 2018 (after the first term). By then, if we have built a global learning community, connecting the alumni to the school, the students to the alumni and the faculty to the alumni, through one big learning platform, and have this immense inter-connected network that functions as one, then that would be a very big achievement," he says.
Dean of Insead
1966: Born in Samokov, Bulgaria
1992: BSc in Business Administration, University of South Carolina
1994: MA in Economics, Princeton University
1996: PhD in Economics, Princeton University
1996-2000: Assistant Professor of Economics at Insead
2000-2007: Associate Professor of Economics
2007-present: Professor of Economics
January 2010-August 2011: Dean of Research
September 2011-September 2013: Dean of Faculty and Research
March 2013-September 2013: Interim Dean of Insead
Since October 2013: Dean of Insead