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Ralph Barrera
AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Students at the Acton School of Business typically put in 100-hour-plus weeks during their one-year course of study - so the campus has been designed to feel like a second home, says Executive Director Georgia Thomsen, with architect Tom Hatch on an outdoor patio.

Ralph Barrera
AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer wanted the feel of Havard University, his alma mater - so 'that's what we went for, down to the red brick and the ivy that will grow on the walls,' Tom Hatch said.

Ralph Barrera
AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Georgia Thomsen Director says decor is relaxed by design.

Ralph Barrera
AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Simon Erich of Site Goals and Georgia Thomsen meet in a school classroom outfitted with video software designed by Erich's Austin company. Video cameras record classes for viewing online.

MORE BUSINESS NEWS

BUSINESS SCHOOL

Acton School of Business prepares for classes

The entrepreneurship-focused school will be housed on East Riverside Drive


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, August 07, 2008

After operating in temporary quarters for the past five years, the Acton School of Business is preparing for classes at its new campus on East Riverside Drive.

Acton, which offers a master of business administration degree program focused on entrepreneurship, broke ground on the $6 million project a year ago. The 10,000-square-foot building features a 60-person amphitheater with video cameras that record classes in high definition so students can review them online. It also includes an open study space with couches and armchairs, a kitchen and an outdoor patio area with a view of Austin's downtown skyline.

The goal was to create a campus that evokes the spirit of an Ivy League school, said Austin architect Tom Hatch, whose firm Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects designed the project. Before he began sketching, Hatch joined Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer on a trip to Boston to tour Harvard University, which Sandefer attended and wanted to emulate.

"Jeff wanted that same collegial environment, which fosters the exchange of new ideas and encourages learning," Hatch said. "That's what we went for, down to the red brick and the ivy that will grow on the walls."

Acton was founded in 2003 by Sandefer, who taught for more than a decade at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, where he developed a nationally ranked entrepreneurship curriculum. He left UT in 2002 after a disagreement over the direction of the entrepreneurship program.

Sandefer took the program to St. Edward's University in 2003. A year later, with a team including former UT professors and Austin entrepreneurs, the school broke out on its own, meeting in a classroom on Barton Springs Road. Its namesake is Lord Acton, the 19th-century scholar dedicated to the study and advancement of liberty.

Acton, which is accredited through Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, features an intense one-year program, in which students put in 100-hour-plus weeks.

The program teaches students to start and run their own company by using a case-based approach, in which actual business situations are studied and analyzed. In addition, students learn by running real assembly lines, selling products door-to-door and participating in cold-calling contests in which they sell a service or product by phone.

The Princeton Review has ranked Acton's teachers among the top five MBA faculties in the country for the past four years and rates Acton as one of the best classroom experiences in the nation. So far, 110 students have graduated from the program, and 30 more will begin classes Aug. 25.

Because students spend most of their waking hours at Acton, the campus needed to feel like a home away from home, said Georgia Thomsen, Acton executive director.

"We wanted an open, relaxed environment, almost a living room, where students would feel comfortable and could just hang out," she said. Study room walls are painted a warm tan, and skylights let in natural light. The decor is minimal, with only wall hangings featuring quotes from Lord Acton. (Among them: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")

The room was designed so that furniture could be pushed to the side and carpets rolled up for the room to be used as a reception hall.

All the facilities, including the amphitheater, will be available free to Austin business groups, Thomsen said.

"We don't want it to sit empty — we want it to become a hub for the business community," she said.

Students said one of the features they're most looking forward to is the amphitheater's high-definition cameras, which will record each class.

Recordings will be posted online two hours after each class ends, creating a forum for students and teachers to continue the debate outside the classroom.

"You never really know how you look and sound when you're engaged in a discussion, but presentation is really important," incoming student Daniel Sacks. said "To be able to sit back and study your performance in a role-playing exercise or a debate will be incredibly valuable."

lhawkins@statesman.com; 912-5955

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