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Greenville Business Magazine

The Path to Columbia

By Kevin Dietrich

Peter Brews recognizes that life could have gone in a very different direction had events in his home country of South Africa moved just a little more quickly.

Brews, dean of the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, is a native of Johannesburg. Members of his family had long opposed the South African government’s policy of apartheid, a system of racial segregation that greatly favored white South Africans. Brews attended the University of Witwatersrand, which, beginning in the 1960s, was the site of anti-apartheid protests.

By the late 1980s, Brews had earned several degrees from Witwatersrand and taught at Witwatersrand’s Graduate School of Business. However, when F.W. de Klerk, a member of the long-ruling National Party, took over as president in the summer of 1989, Brews felt it was time to leave his native land, choosing to enroll in the doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

“I immigrated to the United States after the election of de Klerk,” he said. “I just couldn’t see that things were ever going to change in South Africa.”

Brews was stunned when, in February 1990, the South African government released political prisoner Nelson Mandela after 26 years in prison, one of the first steps toward the end of state-sponsored apartheid in South Africa.

“It was amazing to be sitting in a room in Pittsburgh less than a year after I had left South Africa, watching on television as Nelson Mandela was being released from prison,” Brews said. “If that had happened a year earlier, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Here is not just the United States, but Columbia, heading one of the highest regarded business schools in the country.

The Moore School of Business has the No. 1 ranked undergraduate international business program and the No. 1 graduate international business program in the nation. It has been the top-ranked undergraduate international business program for more than 20 years.

The Moore School’s current success comes at a time when many U.S. MBA programs are experiencing a decline in applications, according to a report from the Graduate Management Admission Council, a global association of leading graduate business schools.

Seventy-three percent of two-year MBA programs in the United States saw a decline in applicants last year, and among programs that responded to the 2019 and 2018 surveys, total applications were down nearly 11 percent.

“A decline in demand for full-time MBAs is a trend that has been underway for a while, and the challenge is to make any full-time MBA specialized enough to prepare students for the world they will face upon graduation,” Brews said.

Despite the overall difficult market for MBA programs, the Moore School was able to grow both of its full-time programs, the one-year MBA and the International MBA. The incoming 2020 International MBA class was up 23 percent over 2019 enrollment and 45 percent over 2018, Brews noted. The school’s one-year MBA program has grown 48 percent over 2019 enrollment and 210 percent over that of 2018, he added.

“Dean Brews is an outstanding leader and we are very fortunate to have him at the Moore School of Business,” said Trey Ackerman, Charlotte market manager for Dixon Hughes Goodman, the largest certified public accounting firm headquartered in the southern United States. “Under his leadership, the undergraduate program has been completely transformed, and he has positioned the Moore School as a contender for the best education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both nationally and globally.

During Brews’ tenure, which began in January 2014, the school has revamped its undergraduate business program, moving to a four-year program from a concentration in business classes during students’ junior and senior years. Also, the school relocated to a 252,000-square-foot, $106.5 million building at the corner of Greene and Assembly streets in the Columbia Vista.

Brews has dedicated additional resources to help increase four-year degree completion rates and internship and job-placement outcomes, said Jan Bass, the Moore School’s associate dean of undergraduate programs and an economics professor. 

“These changes have raised the Moore School’s reputation, both in South Carolina and across the country,” Bass said. “As a consequence, admissions into the Moore School have become more competitive, SAT and ACT scores have increased, greater numbers of students are securing internships, full-time job placement rates have risen and starting salaries have increased.”

Brews has been instrumental in strategic changes at the Moore School that have led to enhanced competitiveness amongst peer institutions as well as better preparation of students to compete in the global business environment, said Deborah Hazzard, who serves as the Moore School’s associate dean of diversity and inclusion and also is a clinical assistant professor of management.

“Our students are data-proficient and analytically based due to Dean Brews’ ability to anticipate the emerging demand for such competencies and skills,” she said.

Anticipating the Future

Among Brews’ goals has been to ensure every student graduates with skills in data analysis.

“Prior to my arrival, the average student could come to the Moore School and not be exposed to the data analysis such as was found in the school’s supply chain program. I scaled that across the entire school,” he said. “The majority of undergraduates are recognizing how important it is to get that grounding in data. When we introduced our undergraduate business analytics concentration in spring 2017, seven students registered for the four-course concentration. In spring 2020, this number increased to over 650.

“We are, it seems, the first business school in this country making the promise that every student should graduate data-proficient,” Brews added.

Data proficiency is critical for business school graduates because of the glut of information available globally.

“There is so much data being generated across life today,” he said. “Humans must be able to find value in data.”

An estimated 1.145 trillion megabytes of data are created each day, with the average person creating 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, according to the publication Social Media Today. It’s believed that the entire digital universe will reach 44 zettabytes this year, according to the World Economic Forum. For reference, there are 21 zeros in a zettabyte.

“The future of the American economy is dependent upon unlocking the value of the data around us,” Brews said.

“I’m giving students enough knowledge about data to make sure they can ask data scientists the right questions and to ensure they’re on the right track,” he added.

There are a number of things that set Moore School graduates apart from graduates of other schools, said Ackerman, himself a product of the Moore School.

These include the experiences that they’ve had functionally and technically within areas of study, aptitude with data and data analysis, verbal and written communication skills, and reasoning and problem-solving skills, he said.

“Overall, the students have a very solid work ethic, they are disciplined with a great sense of tenacity, and they have an openness and desire for continuous learning and growth,” Ackerman added. “In addition, the students are pleasant to work with and understand the value of building meaningful relationships.”

Each fall before the first day of the semester, Brews takes part in a Freshman Welcome in which he emphasizes excellence, integrity, resilience and teamwork to incoming Moore School students, Bass said. This year’s event was handled virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“He talks with students about these values, gives examples, and encourages them to make good choices and to be mindful of their digital footprint,” she said.

Brews’ belief in data comes in part from his experience as a professor and associate dean at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2006 to 2013.

Prior to that he spent nearly six years as an assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Both positions allowed him to closely observe companies operating in Research Triangle Park, the North Carolina region anchored by the major research universities of Duke, UNC and North Carolina State University, and the site of numerous tech company operations, including those of Cisco, IBM, SAS, Nortel and Sony Ericsson.

“I spent 20 years in North Carolina, in Research Triangle Park, and I saw the value of data continuously,” he said. “I was around it all the time.”

Introducing change at the Moore School, which had a long and successful track record, wasn’t a difficult task, Brews said.

“There was no pushback at UofSC regarding what I was trying to do,” he said. “We actually had a data- analytics taskforce at the Moore School that understood the importance of data and had been getting together to talk about it and consider how to help students better understand its importance.”

The biggest change that Brews brought was an elevation of the profile and reputation of the undergraduate business program, Bass said.

“This came on two fronts: creating a more rigorous program that includes a greater emphasis on data analytics, where business classes start in freshman year, and expecting our students to work hard, be resilient and excel,” she said. “These changes were dubbed the ‘Undergraduate Excellence Initiative.’”

Brews said he understood that innovation was essential to ensuring the education Moore School students received remained cutting edge.

“The role of leadership is to see where the world is going and get there before others,” he said.