Many competitors would give their right arm for the Judge Business School's advantages: an integral place within a globally renowned university and a stylish home at the heart of one of the country's most beautiful cities. Despite these undoubted assets, as the outgoing director Professor Sandra Dawson has admitted, the Judge's international profile is not as strong as it should be. Sixteen years after it was founded, the Judge has yet to capitalise fully on the strength of the Cambridge University brand.
There is a hint of fire in the eyes as Belgium-born Professor Arnoud De Meyer talks about the challenges he will face on taking over the helm at the Judge in September, having left INSEAD business school in France, where he's been deputy dean. His appointment to the Judge has come towards the end of a far-reaching internal process of soul-searching. A strategic review, which was spearheaded by industry giants including Lord Browne, group chief executive of BP, looked at how the Judge can best play to its strengths and remain competitive in the crowded MBA marketplace.
Cambridge's business school has now set itself the goal of being recognised as one of the world's top 10 schools for the one-year full-time MBA. There are also plans to double the MBA intake over time, ensuring that the quality of students and faculty is maintained.
Why does De Meyer feel that he is particularly well equipped to help achieve these ambitious aims? "With 23 years experience at INSEAD, I bring the concept that a business school can be run in a relatively independent way without having to rely too heavily on external funding. Also, INSEAD has developed wide experience in executive education and that aspect is still lacking at the Judge."
Perhaps De Meyer's greatest claim to fame is that he built up INSEAD's second campus in Singapore from scratch, becoming founding dean. "I am probably a bit of an academic entrepreneur. I like to take something that is comparatively small and try to grow it and make it a highly visible place, as has happened in Singapore. This can be applied to the Judge too.
"One of my priorities will be to work on exploiting the Cambridge brand more assertively. People at the Judge don't seem to realise how wonderful that brand is in global terms. Maybe it takes an outsider like me to show Cambridge what a great asset it has."
De Meyer intends to take a hard look at pedagogical methods. "We have to ask ourselves - how do you best teach managers to manage? Case studies are not the only way. Business schools are moving towards a combination of on-the-job training via projects, business simulation and role-modelling, lectures and online learning.
"Here in Cambridge, I have discovered a uniquely valuable method of teaching that finds its roots in the college tradition [All MBAs become members of a college during their time at Cambridge] and the one-to-one, or small group tutorial system. This is quite different from at INSEAD."
As he enters his honeymoon period, the Judge's new director will face an immediate challenge in continuing to attract the brightest and best. At number 35, the Judge lags 15 places behind Oxford's Saïd Business School in the latest rankings.
"Aspiring students should always look behind the rankings, as they by no means tell the whole story," De Meyer responds bullishly. What, in his view, then makes Cambridge a better choice for an MBA than Oxford? "The two universities have strong similarities but also strong differences. My perception, as an outsider, is that Cambridge is far more engineering and science-oriented, enjoying close links with businesses involved in the exploitation of science and technology, while Oxford is probably much more focused on the liberal arts and political science. This means there is room for both of us to be top schools. I never under-estimate the competition though."
If the Judge is to attract students in sufficient numbers to reach their eventual target of around 230, faculty numbers will have to be increased. "We should be able to support a staff of 65, whereas at present there are 45," says De Meyer. But "the current competition is not so much for promising students but for good faculty." His long connection with INSEAD, plus the experience and the network he has built up over 23 years will help, but in the short term, he is bound by an agreement not to poach from his old school.
"Cambridge is buzzing with entrepreneurial activity and that is one of the biggest attractions of taking over at this time. It's like entering a candy store."
De Meyer, whose background is in electrical engineering, sees himself as an academic at heart. For this reason, his move to Cambridge is an attractive prospect: "One of the reasons why I am looking forward so much to coming, is that deep down I am also something of a technological entrepreneur with a background in research and teaching people to manage innovation."
A bachelor with a passion for history, De Meyer eagerly anticipates the chance to burrow in Cambridge's voluminous libraries to indulge his pastime. If the Judge's energetic and well-connected new recruit from INSEAD can exploit Cambridge's twin strengths of world-class academic research and successful high-tech innovation, the Judge should be on track to grow its international reputation and catch the Oxford opposition in the rankings.
'I've been impressed by the Judge's contacts'
Mona El-Kheshen, 24, has already notched up valuable marketing experience working for global consumer product manufacturers. She looked to the one-year MBA at the Judge to broaden her international exposure and to pave the way for a career move into a different sector. She studied in Cairo and then worked in Egypt on the marketing side for major multinationals.
"Part of my motivation for doing the MBA was that I wanted to stay in marketing but switch sectors and also hoped to work in the UK," she says. "After a few weeks into the course in Cambridge, I was offered a job with Johnson & Johnson on the strategic marketing side, based near London.
"The chance to be part of a world-class university appealed to me and I have been impressed by the quality and range of the Judge's contacts with leading companies.
"The faculty are first-class, but above all I have appreciated the chance to interact with over 40 different nationalities and learn about their cultures and different ways of doing business."Reuse content