“So much is at stake”: Yale’s historic ties to Russia’s Skolkovo School￼
Yale’s School of Management has held collaborations with the Skolkovo School of Management in Russia since 2015, but ended its relationship with the school in March 2022 after Skolkovo was suspended from the Global Network for Advanced Management.
Following global institutional distancing from Russia and Russian figures in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, criticism has sparked over Yale’s ties to the Moscow School of Management, also known as Skolkovo.
The University’s connection to Skolkovo, a Moscow-based graduate business school, began in 2013 and stemmed from the Russian school’s goal of fostering relationships between major Russian and international business leaders. Both universities were part of the Global Network for Advanced Management, a network of 32 leading business schools around the world that can share curricula, expertise and opportunities with students.
Skolkovo was founded in 2006, and was funded solely by commercial activities and private investment. Among its founders were Russian oligarchs Viktor Vekselberg and Roman Abramovich, both of whom currently face worldwide sanctions.
“A number of [top business] schools… already worked with Skolkovo,” said Former SOM Deputy Dean David Bach, who handled Yale’s partnership with Skolkovo. “[They] felt it was the only top business school in Russia that had a shot at becoming a leading, internationally-oriented business school.”
But in March 2022, Skolkovo was suspended from the Global Network following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting criticism of the Russian government. By then, Yale professors had been raising concerns about its close ties to Russian business interests for years.
Skolkovo’s relationship with Yale
In fall 2013, Skolkovo “inquired informally” about membership in the Global Network – yet a majority of members of the group felt that Skolkovo was still “too early in its development to be a robust member,” according to Bach.
Bach said that like many young business schools in emerging markets, Skolkovo’s main interest was to learn from its more established peers via partnerships with universities such as Yale. But concerns arose that Skolkovo was falling short of expectations in these partnerships.
At the time Skolkovo originally applied to be a part of the Global Network, many members were reluctant to accept it, according to Bach. Concerns about the school’s readiness to join the partnership were only put to rest years later in 2019, when Skolkovo received the prestigious EQUIS accreditation for higher education institutions of management and business administration. Skolkovo was allowed to join the partnership in earnest in December 2019.
In the meantime, according to Bach, Skolkovo formed individual relationships with a number of Global Network members, including Yale. In 2015, at Skolkovo’s request, Yale and Skolkovo formed a non-degree executive education partnership.
As a part of this partnership, SOM professors were invited to teach at Skolkovo’s Moscow School of Management. Among the professors invited after the partnership’s 2015 formation were SOM Professors Shane Frederick and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.
Frederick accepted the request, and told the News about his 2016 trip to Moscow, where he was greeted with “white wine [and] salmon eggs” at a welcome reception. He mentioned that he had not been familiar with many of the people he met at the school, and that many only spoke Russian, making it difficult for him and other faculty to easily connect with the students at the school.
According to a syllabus obtained by the News, Frederick taught a series of sessions on marketing and behavioral economics in the summer of 2016.
He noted that the list of program participants he was instructing included not only students, but also Russian business managers and executives. When asked for a list of attendees who participated in the Yale faculty-led courses, SOM media spokesperson Emily Gordon said that as a matter of policy, no Yale SOM program releases the names of its students.
Bach recalled to the News that participants in Yale professors’ workshops at Skolkovo included leaders from the Russian subsidiaries of a number of Western companies, including Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, and EY. Skolkovo has delivered more than 350 programs for more than 150 corporate clients, including Russia’s largest corporations, such as Lukoil, Rosatom, and TNK BP.
Sonnenfeld, on the other hand, declined the request to visit Moscow and lead a workshop at the school. By 2018, when he was supposed to visit Moscow, Vekselberg, one of Skokolvo’s founders, was already sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
In 2017, two of Skolkovo’s founders, Vekselberg and Abramovich, were identified as Russian oligarchs named by then-President Donald Trump in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.
“[I] recommended that we not engage further with that institution given its founding and governance by Russian government officials and what had become internationally sanctioned oligarchs as well as [its] questionable academic status,” Sonnenfeld wrote in an email to the News.
Terminating Yale’s relationship with Skolkovo
After consulting with experts on the Skolkovo school’s creation and governance facts, Sonnenfeld convinced his faculty colleagues who had been invited to the Moscow-based school to decline their individual opportunities to teach there in 2018. The University’s administrative leaders then conducted another review of Skolkovo, and further declined the opportunity on behalf of the institution.
“That process and outcome should be a source of school pride,” Sonnenfeld said.
However, Skolkovo remained connected to the SOM. In December 2019, Skolkovo joined the Global Network after it was nominated by member school Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, or HKUST, and approved by a vote of the deans and directors of the member schools.
The Russian school’s admission to the network meant that it and other member schools, including Yale, could share curriculum, expertise and opportunities with students, allowing them to learn from leaders around the world. This happens through three programs: Global Network Weeks, in which students can visit other schools in the network; Small Network Online Courses, in which students can take online courses taught by professors around the world; and Global Virtual teams, in which students from different institutions engage in different projects together.
Former SOM Dean Ted Snyder told the News that he believed Skolkovo became part of the Global Network because it was one the best business schools in Russia.
In March 2022, Skolkovo’s membership in the Global Network was suspended by the Global Network’s nine-member steering committee. While the official reason for the suspension was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fact that some members of the steering committee, there were other apparent causes.
According to Snyder, Skolkovo Dean Yuri Levin himself had requested that Skolkovo be suspended from the Global Network prior to the Russian invasion, as the school was only able to participate in virtual team projects, but was unable to participate in other programs and events that required students to travel to different schools in the network due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Snyder also noted that Skolkovo was experiencing an “exodus” of students, staff and faculty, and as such would be unable to contribute meaningfully in any partnership with top business schools such as Yale. He also emphasized that in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would be difficult for Skolkovo to run a global network program in which students from other institutions would visit Skolkovo because it would be unlikely that many students would feel comfortable visiting.
Reflecting on the past
History professor Arne Westad told the News that institutions such as Yale needed to be aware of which partnerships they choose to pursue.
“One has to be vigilant on these kinds of issues,” Westad said. “So much is at stake in terms of reputation.”
But Westad noted that there are differing opinions on whether all ties with Russian institutions should be severed due to actions of the Russian government.
He mentioned that cutting off ties with these institutions may hurt people whom it would be best to stay in touch with, such as academics in Russia. On the other hand, Westad noted that unless these scholars were willing to speak up against the Kremlin, he wasn’t sure it was practical to continue fostering a relationship with them.
The Yale School of Management was first established in 1976.