It doesn’t have Yale’s international reach — virtually every student at the school is Indian-born and raised. But it does have one thing: the Yale logo on its letterhead.
Yale established a “memorandum of understanding” with Great Lakes, a special relationship that is only one of hundreds of partnerships the University maintains worldwide. For Great Lakes, the deal means more — so much that you cannot open a letter from the institute or visit its Web page without seeing the Yale name.
“Anyone who gets mail from Great Lakes would know we have a tie-up to Yale,” Great Lakes executive director S. Sriram says in his office. “After all, Yale is Yale.”
In three years, the Great Lakes Institute of Management has gone from a mere proposal to one of the most competitive business schools in India. Last year, half of the graduates of the institute’s one-year MBA program were recruited by India’s top four technology firms.
And except for the fact that the institute’s building is a bit cramped — it is probably only half the size of WLH — there are few differences between what you see inside Great Lakes and what you would expect in any American university. In the library, students tap away on their iBooks and Dells (one student’s desktop displays a sultry Liv Tyler) and signs politely implore them to “Please Switch Off Your Mobile Phones.” There is a map on the wall, but it is of the United States, not India. Next to it is a poster of an American astronaut in space.
Outside the air-conditioned building, the contrast between Yale-in-Chennai and Yale-in-New Haven is a bit starker. A half-block from the Great Lakes entrance is a street lined mostly with tea stalls constructed out of corrugated metal and makeshift shacks crafted out of a combination of plastic and thatch. And of course, Yale’s two-year MBA program will cost an entering student $36,800 a year this fall; a Great Lakes education checks in at 350,000 rupees annually, or about $8,500.
With a brand-new campus under construction, Great Lakes hopes to instantly become a “global” school. But Yale has something that Great Lakes still needs: a brand name. Besides offering Great Lakes access to its faculty, Yale’s collaboration with Great Lakes — however nascent — offers the school instant credibility. After all, Yale is Yale.
Yale is, of course, a “community of scholars,” the alma mater of five presidents and a perennial top-five school in all the college rankings.
But it is also a brand. The value of a Yale education rests in part on the fact that most people a graduate meets — a potential employer, a potential spouse or just an acquaintance on the street — will instantly recognize what the name Yale means.
The idea that universities have brands in the first place is a rather new one. Robert Moore, a former English professor who is now managing director of the marketing firm Lipman Hearne, remembers colleagues who would bristle at the idea that institutions of higher learning might stoop to pitching a university like they would pitch laundry detergent.
“Five or 10 years ago, even the m-word — marketing — was anathema,” says Moore, whose firm’s clients have included Harvard and Princeton. “Higher education institutions have come to understand that smart marketing is honest, it’s genuine. Institutions have a brand — and the question is whether they are going to understand their brand and try to configure it in a way that it meets the best interests of the institutions or the stakeholders, or are they just going to let it float out there.”
Part of university branding comes down to the simplest components of a school’s image, like its name and logo. In recent years, schools like Pennsylvania’s Arcadia University (once Beaver College) and the College of New Jersey (Trenton State College) have changed their names to appeal to a new audience and attract better students. Along with other universities like Cornell and Washington State, UC-Berkeley has a formal identity package of logos and fonts to, in the words of chancellor Robert Birgeneau, “communicate the excellence of Berkeley to the world.” Harvard has a full-fledged Trademark Protection Office, which licenses the university’s name, bringing in about $1 million a year.
But the larger role of branding, says Moore, is to further a school’s “mission.” Colleges and universities worry about their brand — or should, at least, Moore says — to the extent that it affects the kind of university they want to be. For smaller, lesser-known schools, branding is about getting their names out there so that prospective students and faculty consider them. For a top university, branding is about attracting the brightest students away from the competition.
Yale administrators shy away from talking about formal branding efforts. When it comes to Yale’s activities, says Helaine Klasky, who directs the University’s Office of Public Affairs, “we want the substance before the style.” Yale doesn’t speak about identity strategies or formal marketing campaigns.
But Yale’s recent efforts in countries like India, China and Korea show just how conscious the University is about spreading its name abroad. And when and where Yale’s name gets used is a key concern for the University, says Yale Associate Secretary Donald Filer, who oversees Yale’s Office of International Affairs as well as its licensing office.
“With respect to the Yale name, our basic approach is that the name has associated with it over 300 years of a reputation of tradition,” Filer says. “Anything we would allow the Yale name to be associated with has to meet the test — does this fit the same tradition of excellence?”
There are no great lakes in Chennai. In fact, on the hot July day that I visited the institute for the first time, the headlines on the city’s newspapers announced that the chief minister of Tamil Nadu — the state of which Chennai is the capital — was on a mission to New Delhi to beg the prime minister for help securing more fresh water.
The name Great Lakes, like so much else about the institute, comes from Bala Balachandran. “Uncle Bala,” as he asks his students to call him, is a respected academic — he earned the title of “ditinguished professor” at Northwestern’s high-ranking Kellogg School of Management to earn the title “distinguished professor.” But in India, he has become an academic entrepreneur.
Sitting in his well-furnished apartment a few miles away from Great Lakes, Balachandran explains the origins of both the name and the institute. The name, he explains, comes from an American-bred fluke: many of the university’s visiting faculty, including Balachandran himself, are affiliated with schools in the Midwest, like Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. Balachandran wanted a name that was “American-sounding,” so Great Lakes it was.
The story of the institute itself is a bit more complicated. When India’s economy opened up to more foreign investment in 1991, Balachandran saw an opportunity. Closer economic ties to the West would create more demand for a Western-style business education. And with so many Indian-Americans now teaching in U.S. business schools — Balachandran says that about one-fifth of Kellogg’s faculty today is of Indian origin — he knew exactly where to look for teachers.
In 1992, Balachandran secured the funding he needed to start a management training institute in Gurgaon, an industrial city not far from Delhi. The goal was, in Balachandran’s words, to “educate the educators.” The school grew to offer a full MBA program, and Balachandran set off on his next program — creating a full-fledged, Western-style business school.
The Indian School of Business, built in the south Indian tech hub of Hyderabad, reflects this vision. It has partnerships with Kellogg and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It has a campus designed by a top architecture firm from, of all places, Atlanta. And within a couple of years, it started drawing students with GMAT scores that would have gotten them into a top-20 school in the U.S.
With two schools down, Balachandran then turned to what he now calls his “baby.” If nothing else, building Great Lakes is particularly important to Balachandran because of where it is located — in his hometown of Chennai. So Balachandran, who has long spent his summers in India and his falls and springs in the U.S., is spending more time than ever back at Great Lakes, where he serves as honorary dean. The school’s second class of MBA candidates started this spring, embarking on a 12-month program that runs six or seven days a week with only one short vacation.
For Yale, Chennai has a certain appeal, too. A few miles to the north of Great Lakes lies Fort St. George — the British complex where Elihu Yale served as governor of Madras in the late 17th century, before he went on to make one of the more famous library donations in history. Two of its top economics professors, Shyam Sunder and T.N. Srinivasan, also hail from the area.
Balachandran has taken advantage of his connections, and the partnership he established with Yale was accomplished using similar tactics. Sunder, a long-time colleague and friend, was interested in conducting research on the growing Indian market — including studies profiling the country’s middle class, and their spending patterns. Great Lakes’ directors wanted to eventually offer a course of research, including a Ph.D. program, to go along with its general MBA.
With Yale President Richard Levin slated to lead a delegation to India at the beginning of 2005, officials from Yale and Great Lakes hashed out a “memorandum of understanding,” creating a joint research center. The Yale visit brought the attention both schools wanted: India’s top papers all reported on the visit, with the Times of India writing of Levin’s “strong pitch to improve visibility of America’s Ivy League school.”
Balachandran notes that in many ways, Yale is a few decades behind the curve. The Indian Institutes of Management — now the most prestigious business schools in India, and among the most renowned in the world — were founded back in the 1960s. Harvard and MIT were both involved in establishing the IIMs. Yale was not.
And in India, Yale faces a natural disadvantage compared to some of its competitors. Traditionally, the top Indian students have been directed towards earning degrees in medicine, business or engineering. Yale offers quality programs in all three areas, but they are seldom considered the University’s bread-and-butter offerings. And for the average Indian looking to go abroad, the attraction of a Harold Bloom or Jonathan Spence isn’t as strong when literature or history are typically considered second-rate subjects back at home.
Compared to the Harvard Business School or the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Yale’s School of Management isn’t perceived of as a top-notch institution in the minds of most Indian students. Much younger than its counterparts in Philadelphia and Cambridge, it doesn’t have the tradition, the alumni or the rank of its competitors, and its historical focus on nonprofit management has typically held less appeal on the subcontinent.
Unlike China, where Yale Assistant Secretary George Joseph says the University is “probably the premier brand,” the University has some catching up to do in India, at least compared to Harvard, Penn and MIT. Sitting around a classroom at Great Lakes, students in the current “batch” say that while Yale is known among many in India, it is often supplanted by other schools in common discussions.
“Among the public in general, Harvard is the upper one,” says Vikranjit Singh. “It is the best.”
Talking about Yale’s impact on Great Lakes in between classes on finance and marketing, Singh and his classmates pinpoint the challenge the Yale brand faces in India. “At this point,” says one student, Murali Dharam, “it’s collaboration that is important for survival.”
“Creating the global university is also a revolutionary development,” Levin said in a 2003 speech. But there is nothing particularly revolutionary yet about what Yale has done in India. As of this summer, the Yale-Great Lakes partnership had yet to result in a single student — from the United States or India — traveling overseas. So far, only one member of Yale’s faculty, Shyam Sunder, has taught in Chennai.
Beyond Great Lakes, Yale’s presence in India is still in its infancy. The Yale School of Public Health has set up a research center in Chennai to study the spread of AIDS. The Fox Fellowships, which arrange student exchanges between foreign schools and Yale, now link Yale to a prestigious New Delhi university. But the number of scholars involved in these collaborations is in the dozens. And at Yale itself, only 100 students, graduate and undergraduate combined, come from India.
In a country of over one billion people — where top-flight schools receive up to 180,000 applications annually, compared to the approximately 20,000 applications that Yale receives every year — Yale’s reach is barely large enough for people to notice. Even if Yale could become the most popular U.S. university in India, the pool of students who are looking to go abroad today, particularly for college, is still quite small.
But given India’s rapidly growing middle class — not to mention the fact that over 30 percent of the country’s population is under 15 — the great opportunity for Yale is managing what Yale’s brand will be worth in the subcontinent a decade or two from now. After all, just over 150 Indian students applied to Yale College last year — up from 96 only five years earlier.
“I hold out great hope that if we can be visible enough … this will have great payoffs in the future,” says Yale admissions officer Peter Chemery, who has been reading applications from India for 20 years. “But you have to be patient. I don’t think there’s a direct mail campaign or an outreach effort that you can apply to a country of that size.”
But will research collaborations and alumni interviews be enough to build Yale’s brand in a country as large as India? In the small tea stalls only a few feet from Great Lakes, you can buy Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay chips and Wrigley’s gum. Will another prominent American brand translate as well?
The students I spoke with, crowded around one of the Great Lakes classrooms, have taken the school’s promise on faith. And perhaps, so has Yale. Yale, Bala Balachandran says, wants to become a global institution. And in its own small way, he explains, Great Lakes can make that happen. “This will make Yale a household name, because Great Lakes will be a household name.”