The campus in Montefresco and teaching with cases

31 October 2023
John C Ickis
No.24. Special edition, November-December 2023. 

“¡This is the place!” shouted George Cabot Lodge when the small plane in which he was traveling flew over the hills of Montefresco, fifteen kilometers south of Managua. The location was ideal for the first campus of the new institute, created by visionary Central American entrepreneurs and committed Harvard Business School (HBS) scholars. The first stone was laid on July 1, 1967 and the master's degree began in September. The students received their classes at the Central Bank, staying at the Lido Palace hotel while construction was completed. The first graduation took place in June 1969. That year I was in the first year of the MBA (Harvard) and George Lodge, co-founder of INCAE with Don Francisco De Sola, was my academic advisor.

I first arrived on campus, as a case writer, in August 1971, driving a Chevrolet Vega from Boston. I will never forget the majestic view of Lake Xolotlán and the Momotombo volcano, which appeared surprisingly as one walked up the cobblestone path towards the Plaza de Banderas. Inside the buildings, the two classrooms reminded me of Aldrich Hall, semicircular halls with raised tiered levels, with movable blackboards behind the pit (“pit") of the teacher, to facilitate the discussion of cases.

Construction of the Francisco de Sola campus, 1968

When the December 1972 earthquake destroyed Managua, the Montefresco campus barely suffered a few fallen tiles. The Rector, Ernesto Cruz, made a call for students to return from their Christmas vacation to help distribute food to the victims and responded to the request of the First Lady, Mrs. Hope Portocarrero, to lend Bob Mullins, professor of operations, to design logistics. Assigned by the Rector to coordinate the student teams, I met daily at El Retiro, Somoza's residence, with other members of the National Emergency Committee; but the campus in Montefresco served as the center of operations for student groups. Then an annex was built to house the Advisory Center, a “think tank” for the reconstruction of Managua in collaboration with the Harvard Institute of International Development.

With the triumph of the revolution in July 1979, the future of INCAE in Nicaragua seemed uncertain, but it endured thanks to three events: first, the invitation to members of the new government to Harvard University, where they met some founders of the INCAE project; second, a meeting between the then Rector Harry Strachan and the Vice President of Nicaragua, Sergio Ramírez Mercado, supposedly “a mere formality” in which Harry surprised him with a film projector, something contrary to protocol. “This is what we do,” he told the vice president at the end of the presentation. “We teach how to solve problems by discussing cases. If you want, we can continue doing it. If not, we leave.”

The third event, less known, was the meeting between two old friends: Walter Krüger, executive of a food company in Texas (and nephew of the famous Nicaraguan composer Irwin Krüger) and Werner Ketelhöhn, from the Faculty of INCAE, in the lobby of a hotel in San Miguel, El Salvador, where we were giving a seminar to the Salvadoran agrarian reform agency. Walter told Werner that he was en route to Managua to start his new job as director of agrarian reform. He asked if we could give the seminar to the ministry of agrarian reform in Nicaragua.

Different activities on the Francisco de Sola campus

This chance meeting was the beginning of the Agroindustrial Management Program, taught to the managers of all state companies in the sector, by members of the INCAE Faculty together with professors Jim Austin and Robert Anthony from HBS. To the government's contributions, in local currency and in kind—Soviet Lada vehicles and bags of basic grains—was added financial support from the Ford Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation and later, from the governments of Federal Germany (west) and Sweden. 

Based on this experience, the financial sector requested its own graduate program and the industrial sector funded senior management programs. In no program was there any attempt to influence the academic content; only the suggestion to focus on the basic functional areas (production, marketing, accounting and control, etc.) and always with the case method. 

There was a request from Ernesto Leal, director of the town's industrial area (COIP) that was implemented by the director of the PAG, Enrique Alvarado. Ernesto asked him to administer a multiple-choice exam at the end of each of the four weeks of the program and he did so, not only in the PAG-COIP but in all INCAE PAGs. The results were surprising: there was greater discipline among the participants, less partying during the weekends, and healthy competition between the groups to achieve the highest average score among their members.

When, due to difficulties in recruiting students and Faculty in Nicaragua, we decided to move the MBA to Costa Rica, the then Rector Marc Lindenberg, from the new campus in Alajuela, asked me as Academic Director at Montefresco, to personally break the news to the Minister of the Presidency, Rodrigo Reyes. He was my liaison with the government and we had always had a cordial relationship, but when he heard the news his face changed color and after a very tense silence he told me that the government could also play hardball, and that the travel agents who tried for taking advantage of the exchange rate they were in jail. I explained to him that we had designed a new Functional Management Program (PAF) to begin in Montefresco, an intensive 12-month program, focused on the needs of managers in Nicaragua, with scholarships from Germany and Sweden, but he was no longer listening to me and He left without finishing his lunch. We met many years later and in the exchange of memories, he told me that the PAF had been very positive for Nicaragua. In fact, three of the current members of the Faculty are PAF, which would continue for twelve years until it was replaced by the new Executive Master that began in Montefresco in the 90s.

The programs we had offered to the government on the campus in Monfresco were undoubtedly controversial and misunderstood by those who did not understand the apolitical culture of INCAE. For some Guatemalan businessmen we were communists, while reports in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal saw us as a bastion of capitalism in a Marxist-Leninist regime. But our graduates understood that our apoliticity was real, that all our colleagues at the Faculty, whether liberal or conservative in thought, taught with the same commitment, regardless of whether the participants were civic leaders, businessmen or former guerrillas.

Professors John C. Ickis, Francisco Leguizamón and Melvin Copen, 5th Rector of INCAE

The culture that was formed in Montefresco, so precious, is a quality that the case method teaches. It opens the mind, it allows us to understand different points of view, without bias. It has empowered us to direct dialogue processes, a fundamental element of our mission.

The loss of the campus at Montefresco is intensely personal for me. There I met Normita at a happy hour in the quadrangle, there we got married in the communal house, there two of our daughters had their first classes at INCAíto with teacher Olguita Retana...

I hope that one day the campus will once again be a beacon of critical thinking, of rigorous analysis, of lively but respectful debate; May the semicircles of my favorite classrooms be filled again with idealistic young people and future business and social leaders. May the vision of the professors who shared the passion for the case method and who are no longer with us—Bob, Werner, Enrique, Marc—re-enlighten the hills of the campus in Montefresco.