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Trinity Business School dean: ‘AI brings a huge threat to people’s ability to learn and to upskill’

Prof Laurent Muzellec on sustainability, social inclusion, MBA rankings and the uncontrollable nature of artificial intelligence

Down on the capacious ground floor of Trinity Business School, one wall bears its newish mission statement in glossy blue lettering: transforming business for good. So, I ask the school’s dean of a year, Prof Laurent Muzellec, is business bad?

We plunge into a conversation about vast wealth inequality and the depletion of the planet’s resources.

“Businesses have been responsible for economic growth, but they are also extremely responsible for the climate crisis and, to a certain extent, the system of social inequality we live in, so we need to correct that, it’s as simple as that,” he says, though by the time we turn to the topic of artificial intelligence, I can’t help feeling that the task of preparing students for the world has never been more complex.

One thing that has not diminished over time is the potency of first-hand experiences. Muzellec, who came to Ireland from France 22 years ago, says his mentality shifted after he witnessed the scorched effects of global heating while travelling a couple of summers ago through the heart of Brittany, where tinder-like conditions in the normally wet region had facilitated the spread of an intense blaze. The Monts d’Arrée, usually as green and temperate as the Wicklow mountains, were burnt up.


“Everywhere around me had disappeared in a wildfire that burned for two weeks, and all of a sudden you see this, and you know that has never happened, ever.”

Muzellec, as the man elected by his peers to lead Trinity Business School, is responsible for “training the future manager elite”, as he puts it, so it seems important that alongside new courses such as Trinity’s MSc in responsible business and sustainability – which will receive its first intake of students this September – the school has embedded environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles across as many of its modules as possible.

Students’ ambitions are naturally skewing in this direction anyway, with the “bling-bling” attitudes of the finance industry from the 1980s into the 2000s and the subsequent wave of tech entrepreneur emulation now both ceding to a more nonprofit outlook.

“From a business school point of view, if you had asked people in the late 1990s and early 2000s what they want to do in their life, they would have told you that they want to be a brand manager for Guinness or for a big consumer brand like that, or some people might have said they want to work for KPMG or one of the big consulting companies,” he says.

“Then it moved on to ‘I want to set up my own company’, an internet company, a new app. Now there is a mix of entrepreneurship and purpose, so the ideas for apps are all about sustainability and the circular economy.”

He agrees that this is healthy, but hesitates when I propose the word “idealistic”, as the trend has also been triggered by knowledge that this is where the market opportunity lies. Besides, the “level of scepticism towards traditional business” that he detects from students hasn’t come from nowhere.

“They are disillusioned by the corporate world to some extent. They have seen their parents – maybe not so much in Ireland – being laid off at the age of 55 when they had given all their energy to a corporation that maybe wasn’t so grateful.”

Muzellec, born in Brest in Brittany to a middle-class family, later grew up in Angers in the Loire Valley, where he attended secondary school in a social housing neighbourhood called La Roseraie. One of the legacies of the friendships he made at this time was that social inclusion became “very important” to him personally.

He, like his predecessor as dean, Prof Andrew Burke, is proud of the Pathways to Business access scheme for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and he made last month’s Trinity Business Forum a paid-for event in a bid to raise further philanthropic proceeds. More than 100 students are receiving bursaries from Pathways to Business, and three postgraduate scholarships have been allocated to its participants.

“If you come from a background where money is an issue, the number one thing that is going to help you is money,” he says.

It is not easy for undergraduates to adjust to Trinity regardless of their socio-economic background, but when a student is the first in their family to access third-level education, adapting can be especially challenging, he notes, citing the story arc of Connell, the character played by Paul Mescal (“great actor”) in the Trinity-set TV adaptation of Normal People.

The university’s business student population is now gender balanced, and though he thinks it can be counterproductive to constrain people by their identity, he has noticed that the testosterone-permeated atmosphere of typical master of business administration (MBA) classes of the past has dissipated as diversity has improved.

“That is partially due to the way we teach, but it is also very much about the type of people who are attending the class, including the fact that there is gender balance.”

The focus on female participation and ESG concerns – including the school’s own carbon emissions – also have the happy consequence of propelling Trinity up the MBA rankings published by the Financial Times, which has increased the weight given to both. At the last count, Trinity’s full-time MBA was ranked 66th in the world – up 21 places on its ranking a year earlier – and was 21st in Europe. No Irish institution is higher.

Previously, these rankings placed greater emphasis on the salary boosts achieved after completing an MBA, meaning the type of student who works in the nonprofit sector but enrols on an MBA to sharpen their business skills did not typically do much for a university’s ranking.

Muzellec pays attention to the Financial Times rankings without letting them dictate Trinity’s approach, he says.

“For me rankings are there to validate a strategy. You have a strategy and then if it is a good strategy, rankings will acknowledge this.”

Trinity Business School – which has about 2,000 undergraduates and 1,000 postgraduates – used to be “a lot smaller” and unranked, so the culture of obsessively monitoring the ups and downs of rankings hasn’t had a chance to take hold there, he says. He hopes it won’t, at least for as long as he is in charge.

It is “not necessarily” the school’s aim to increase its student population further. Some 70 per cent of its postgraduate students come from abroad, and although applications have increased – a trend perhaps related to a decline in EU students attending British universities post-Brexit – there are “literally no places any more for them to find accommodation” in Dublin, says Muzellec.

“Some people sign up and then by the day we start the lectures, they have vanished because they came in August to look for accommodation [and couldn’t find it],” he says. This is a “real pity”, though he is conscious that such difficulties are just one facet of a multi-stranded housing crisis. “It is an issue, but it is so much more of an issue for other people.”

Darts trundle along the railway line visible from his glass-walled third-floor office, taking commuters in and out of the city. The door of Trinity Business School – a six-storey, €80 million building officially opened in May 2019 – opens on to Pearse Street, which positions the school between the big tech employers of the Digital Docklands and the historic, multidisciplinary Trinity campus.

“The business school is literally – physically and conceptually – at the intersection of those two worlds,” he says.

It would be foolish of me to say that any business school or any business has the answer because this is really unknown territory

Muzellec (50), first joined Trinity as a professor in marketing and digital business in 2015, setting up its MSc in Digital Marketing Strategy and establishing its Centre for Digital Business and Analytics. Before Trinity, his academic career spanned the UCD Smurfit School, DCU Business School and ESSCA School of Management in Angers. His research interests include digital business models, social media, corporate rebranding and – intriguingly – fictional brands.

Before deciding to do a PhD at UCD, he worked at the French embassy trade office in New York and then as a product manager for a Parisian online mapping start-up. Although the good understanding of academic life he has built up over the past 20 years is obviously vital for his role as dean, it is “certainly no harm” to also have “a modicum of business acumen” from this early phase of his career, he thinks.

Responding to the constancy of change is part and parcel of running a business school, but one particular revolution now looms large over the “fundamentals” of teaching and assessing: the advent of generative AI.

“AI is a big change, personally I would argue in the history of humanity,” he says matter-of-factly.

“If you look at the history of humanity, in a way it is always about outsourcing some level of cognitive ability into an object or something external to us.”

While the Greeks who listened to Socrates had to memorise what they learned, every advance since then from paper to the printing press to computers has involved “letting go some skills”, but acquiring others.

“And what’s happening with AI, especially with generative AI, is that you literally don’t need to know anything to use the technology, at least to use it badly. You just need to ask it the question and it will spew out some kind of algorithmic answer, and that brings a huge threat to our ability to learn and our ability to upskill,” he says.

“The threat is that we will deskill.”

This has seismic ramifications for what it teaches, and how it teaches it, so much so that an AI taskforce has been set up to explore how the school will evolve – the taskforce is designing a module for lecturers called Teaching with AI and this, he hints, is just the beginning.

“We need to assume that 99.9 per cent of our students will use AI one way or another in order to come up with an answer. But what the preliminary studies on AI show is that if students just use it to take the question their lecturer has asked, put it into the AI software and then give back the answer, they are less motivated to learn. They literally don’t learn anything,” says Muzellec.

One way to mitigate this is to construct assignments in which students first “engage in a meaningful conversation” with AI, “almost as if it is another person”, and then show how they reformulated AI’s “first draft”, using it to refine their own thoughts, he says.

To “really grasp the full benefit, individually and for society”, people will need to become AI literate, he adds. But that the technology can be used without effort or skill remains a distinct concern, while expectations that it will serve as a catalyst for job losses are undoubtedly “scary”, even allowing for the possibility that other jobs will be created and the likelihood that AI’s prevailing “super-hyped” era will eventually yield to calmer clarity.

“The frustrating thing with AI or phenomena like this is that they impose themselves upon society. You cannot ignore it, you cannot ... ”

He pauses. “Control it?” I suggest.

“Exactly, that’s the problem. It’s a tsunami.”

“It would be foolish of me to say that any business school or any business has the answer because this is really unknown territory.”

The role of dean, though “a little bit detached” from the academic calendar of lectures and exams, takes on its own dynamic at this time of year, with his mission at the moment to advance the work of the AI taskforce so that certain plans can be implemented before September. As summer beckons, there is, as ever, no time to waste in the school’s push to “walk the talk” and transform business for good – by transforming itself first.


Name Prof Laurent Muzellec

Job Dean of Trinity Business School

Lives Windy Arbour, Dublin

Family Married to Lisa Ryan, they have three children, aged 11, 14 and 17.

Something you might expect He used to return to France in the summer a lot, working remotely, but believes this will be “more challenging” in his new position.

Something that might surprise He is a soccer coach for an under-12s team at Rosemount Mulvey football club and also briefly coached GAA at Kilmacud Crokes in Stillorgan until the kids there “rapidly discovered” that the French man’s GAA abilities were “quite limited”.