Business Schools

What's in a Name? If It's Oxford, a Lot


An MBA student at the steeped-in-tradition school finds the formal atmosphere of final exams both challenging and thrilling

Monday morning, I was excited. I was jittery. I could no longer sleep. I jumped out of bed and into the shower. From my closet, I pulled out my piercingly black suit, freshly pressed tuxedo shirt, creamy white bow tie, newly polished Johnston and Murphy shoes, and recently refilled Mont Blanc pen.

There are two pictures that probably come to mind when you read the previous sentences: 1. This guy is getting ready for a Rotary Club formal dinner; 2. This guy is a ninny. Although I assure you I hope to be both one day, my situation was nowhere close. I should have been nervous or going over formulas. After all, I was getting dressed for exams.

It's true Oxford's MBA is quite academic. The benefit of the program is that it can draw upon resources from a university older than many tourist attractions. The business school can make use of a network that extends to 800 years' worth of business and world leaders. However, there is a real challenge to understanding the traditions and customs and transferring these beliefs to contemporary students (myself especially). University administrators and proctors believe chivalry, honor, and wearing a suit of armor are more important than business ethics, social entrepreneurship, and a suit from Armani.

The Oxford Scholar's Uniform

Add to that the perceived truth that MBA students are different from most others and additional challenges to uphold tradition surface. MBAs have worked before, we have had million-dollar budgets, and most of us have had the good fortune to receive a high salary (possibly more than our lecturers). This "real world" experience instills arrogance and a sense of entitlement: "We should decide our MBA experience and if I don't want to wear a gown and bow tie, I shouldn't have to." Truth be told, I, too, had similar thoughts. Truth be told, I was childish.

In order to be allowed to enter the exam hall, students must adhere to academic dress. Oxford University enforces the dress code very seriously. Although looking like James Bond or a fancy butler seems quite ridiculous, most students eventually learn to enjoy this age-old tradition. This tradition is known as subfusc.

What exactly is subfusc?

Men:

Dark Suit—brown does not count

Black shoes and socks

White bow tie

White dress shirt and collar

Graduate gown

Women:

Black ribbon tie

White blouse

Black skirt or trousers

Black stockings

Graduate gown

A friend of mine told his father that subfusc was a useless and uncomfortable process. It's bad enough taking exam after exam, but in a penguin suit to boot? His father's reply: "Son, you have to understand the uniform. Football players have a uniform. Cricket players have a uniform. Subfusc is the uniform of a scholar. Son, you are not yet a scholar, and so you don't understand subfusc."

I'll admit I hated the idea that a huge part of my grade would be based on one exam. Many MBA programs emphasize teamwork and group assignments. Oxford's process was a turn-off for me. A manager would never ask me to write my formulas or explain every source for my numbers. Projects that run within budget while creating satisfied customers led to a nice bonus and small raise at the end of the year. MBAs should never have to take an exam. We're different; we are professionals.

The Testing Standard of Champions

My previous line of thinking was: I am an MBA student. I thought the three letters at the end of my degree were more important than the three words at the front of it (for those visual learners: University of Oxford, MBA). My thinking was completely wrong. I didn't understand that there is something more important, an even greater club that I had joined. I am a graduate student at the University of Oxford. This fact is more important than any three letters could ever be. Because of this, a strict and formal exam that could swing my grade from a pass to a fail was essential.

One day I will be back in the "real world" and I will meet other Oxford graduates. Whether they are lawyers, scientists, or fellow MBAs, there is no doubt in my mind we will see each other as equals. We will instantly have a rapport and we will respect each other's accomplishments. Because underneath a fancy gown or a trivial title will be the small fact that every Oxford student shares a rigorous testing standard, the Oxford testing standard.

President Bill Clinton, the writer C.S. Lewis, and the 12 eventual saints who have walked the halls of Oxford, all have shared the experience of facing the unholy examination proctors and the wrath they bring as they tower over students' seats during the three-hour, sweat-producing exam. This is why the exam, the scholar's suit of armor, and the strict rules are important. To challenge these traditions is to fight history and to disrespect the great men and women who have graduated from our fine institution.

That Championship Season

In basketball, they say stars are born during the regular season, but legends are born in the playoffs. That's why I was excited to jump in the shower that day. I was thrilled to put on my best suit and best shoes. No other word than ecstatic could describe my mood every morning of exam week. I was 98% excited and 2% scared, or maybe the other way around, but either way that's what made it exciting. It was like Christmas morning for four straight days.

Case studies with an unlimited amount of time to get every word right and every phrase flowing let other students know who was smart and who was serious. Presentations allowed those gifted speakers to shine and become all-stars of the classroom. But final exams? Final exams are the championship game for academics. They give students a chance to work under pressure, to tackle never-before-seen finance problems, and the opportunity to become legends. It is the process of becoming an Oxford University graduate.

Larry Kao is an MBA Journal writer and a member of the MBA Class of 2008 at Oxford's Saïd Business School.

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