Thunderbird at 70: Rebirth and rediscovery

Friday, April 1, 2016

When leaping ahead, it sometimes helps to look back. And for an institution with a history as storied as the Thunderbird School of Global Management, that reflection has been part of the school’s resurgence.

Thunderbird was launched as an international business school 70 years ago, after World War II ended. The Glendale campus had been built in 1940 as a training base for fighter pilots.

Over the decades, it built an international reputation — known as the "Thunderbird Mystique" — before facing financial uncertainty a few years ago. In January 2015, the school became partners with Arizona State University.

“When an organization goes through change, it’s helpful to go back to basic principles and ask what was the original mission and what are we about as an institution?” said Allen Morrison, chief executive officer and director general of Thunderbird.

“In many ways it’s been a rebirth and also a rediscovery.”

The 70th anniversary, which the school will mark in a celebration on campus April 7-10, has been a chance to reflect.

Morrison said that even though technology and travel has made it seem as though the world has shrunk, the need for communication has never been greater.

“Despite all the talk about the emergence of a global culture and mind-set, I don’t think that’s happening at all,” he said.

“Dealing with the human challenge of international business and trade and conflict, the differences that separated us continue to separate us, and I think that’s just part of the human story — that we associate with the people we know and the languages we’re comfortable with.”


Allen Morrison, CEO of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, said the school will be expanding its global offerings.

Morrison said that creates an opportunity for Thunderbird to help cultures, companies and organizations to connect.

Thunderbird is now leveraging its relationship with ASU to expand its offerings to foster more international business relationships.

Morrison said that embracing ASU’s innovative culture has been a natural way to honor the school’s original mission, as described by founder Gen. Barton Kyle Yount in 1947:

“We made some important decisions during the school’s first year. One was that the school would always keep itself free to experiment (both in subject matter and in educational techniques).”

'The only place'

In 1940, the business of the time was war. A group of Hollywood investors found a dusty plot of land in Glendale and told the U.S. Army that if it put an air base there, they would run it. Over the next four years, more than 15,000 pilots trained at Thunderbird Field before going off to fight in World War II.

Then the war ended and the base was vacant for several months until Yount decided to start a school to train businessmen to work overseas. The American Institute for Foreign Trade was incorporated April 8, 1946.

The property was assessed at more than $407,000, but because Yount promised to create a school, he got the land for free. That giveaway of war surplus property prompted a brief congressional investigation. The hearings exonerated Yount, and the flurry of nationwide attention raised the profile of the new school, which was flooded with applicants. When the doors opened in October 1946, the barracks has been transformed into dormitories.

The first graduating class in June 1947 had 234 students from 45 states. Most were veterans. One of them was Jack Rokahr, a soldier who had returned home to Lincoln, Nebraska, after serving in the war. He heard about the school from his aunt, who lived in Phoenix.

“The school was a perfect way to mentally adjust back to civilian life because it’s very difficult for a soldier who had been in the Army for months and months to suddenly get back to civilian life,” said Rokahr, who now lives in Los Angeles.

“It was familiar surroundings for us but without the uniforms. Although we did line up to go to the dining room.”

Rokahr had four roommates and said that all the students were very serious.

“We all knew we were there to get a job,” he said.

Back then, the campus was in the middle of nowhere. On weekends, the students would hitchhike into Glendale, where they would catch a bus to Phoenix.

While at Thunderbird, Rokahr spent hours in the library, copying the names of companies that did business around the world. In 1949, he was hired in the international department of a pharmaceutical company and eventually lived South America, the Middle East and Asia. He later worked in the U.S. Department of Commerce for many years.

“We were independent and yet we all worked together,” Rokahr, now 93, said of those early days of the school.

“Those graduates from class number one were excellent prospects and AIFT was a great place, and the only place at that time, for us to get the training we needed.”

Embracing innovation

Thunderbird still is unique in the way it trains business managers, Morrison said.

“What they teach at traditional business schools is a highly U.S.-centered approach,” he said. “Where Thunderbird is different in a meaningful way is that we truly have a global perspective of leadership models and one of the strongest expertise in the world for teaching a multicultural perspective of leadership.”

ASU’s transdisciplinary approach, combined with its many resources, have been a big benefit, he said. In one case, Thunderbird was able to bring a European company that was visiting the Glendale campus to the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on the Tempe campus to work out a knotty problem.

“That’s been a profound contribution,” he said. "And ASU wants to see how its applications work in business and government."

In an appropriate twist, the school that started as a training base for World War II pilots is now using state-of-the-art flight simulators at the Polytechnic campus.

“One of the things that helps crystallize learning is when you give someone something experiential,” said Dawn Feldman, executive director and chief operating officer of executive education at Thunderbird.

Businesspeople who are taking the strategies and leadership executive-education class will visit the flight simulators at the Polytechnic campus as part of the program.

“What happens when you have to lead others when you’re looking at a situation and you have to decide split second around life or death?” she said.

Thunderbird is looking to expand its reach, Morrison said. The school will offer its core degree, the master’s of global management, in more ways, including online and in other countries. The bachelor’s of global management, offered at ASU’s West campus, will include different concentrations.

And the school is looking at expanding its global footprint by opening more “hub offices.” Thunderbird now has hub offices in Geneva and Moscow, with one opening soon in Dubai. The offices would partner with local schools to offer Thunderbird programs as well as find jobs for graduates and connect with alumni.

Feldman said that all institutions — and companies — should never take their existence for granted. The many changes at Thunderbird in the past few years have made the school more open to reflection about its relevance and mission.

“When you’ve undergone such a significant baring of your soul as Thunderbird has, you get to a point where those questions are less scary. It’s liberating.”

The Thunderbird 70th Anniversary and All-Class Reunion will include a reception, pub night, class events, leadership forum sessions, an alumni rugby match , a dinner and a brunch. For more information, visit alumni.thunderbird.edu/thunderbird-70th-anniversary .