B-School Life

More B-School Deans Should Be Meteorologists


Wharton School Dean Thomas S. Robertson

Photograph courtesy of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Wharton School Dean Thomas S. Robertson

A guest post from Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools. He is also director of Fortuna Admissions and co-author of ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge.

Both Wharton and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC have recently announced that their deans are stepping down. And in so doing they have added to a growing list of vacancies at major schools that also encompasses INSEAD, Emory’s Goizueta Business School, and Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

In major companies a change at the top can generate enough worries to cause jitters in financial markets—just look at what happened at Apple (AAPL) when Tim Cook took over after Steve Jobs died. But in the business school world the appointment of a new dean is typically seen as an opportunity to inject fresh ideas and perspectives into what are often seen as conservative and bureaucratic institutions. This certainly seems to have been the case at the Harvard Business School, where in his first year Dean Nitin Nohria attracted attention for the decision to send MBA candidates to distant parts of the world, adding experiential learning to the school’s case method of teaching.

How radical can a school afford to be when it comes to filling the top job?

A few years ago the London Business School experimented with recruiting from outside the usual academic circles—naming Robin Buchanan, from the management consulting firm Bain & Co., to the dean’s post—with apparently unhappy results. The appointment lasted 16 months.

Why this experiment was unsuccessful has never been made clear. But the received wisdom is that, to handle the job effectively, a business school dean needs plenty of experience with the political machinations that are part and parcel of any major academic institution. While Kellogg‘s dean since 2010, Sally Blount, may be pulling from her experience at Boston Consulting Group and design and branding agency Eva Maddox Associates to reposition the school’s strategic direction, her time as dean of undergraduates at NYU’s Stern School of Business is also serving her well. It seems that a corporate career is no substitute for this. Even for fundraising, a key aspect of the dean’s responsibilities, academics may have some advantages, because most donors are connected to the school’s academic mission.

What is the solution? Should schools just opt for one of the “usual suspects” and drop any attempt at fresh thinking?

Perhaps the answer lies in a compromise that seems to be growing in popularity in France. Instead of drawing their leaders from the core business faculty, several schools have opted for professors from less obvious backgrounds. The ESSEC Business School, for example, has recently appointed a law professor, and ESCP has chosen a historian, while Philippe Courtier, who became president of E.M. Lyon last year, is a meteorologist by training.

Of course there’s nothing really new in this idea. “Insiders” who have some distance from the organization they’re being asked to lead—such as a law professor at the helm of a business school—are more likely to remain open to new ideas. After all, politicians often take on Cabinet-level roles in agriculture, health care, education, and more that are well outside their original expertise.

Despite the fact that life at the top of an academic institution may not be as comfortable as it once was—as LBS’s Buchanan found out very quickly—it’s unlikely that there will be a shortage of candidates for the lengthening list of open roles. Life in the hot seat obviously still has its attractions. Which might explain why Kenan-Flagler’s James Dean Jr. is not swapping his deanship for the beach or the golf course, but for the job of provost for the entire University of North Carolina.

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Symonds is chief editor of MBA50.com and a guest blogger.

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