Dean of the Year: Darden’s Robert Bruner

by John A. Byrne on

Dean of the Year: Darden School’s Bob Bruner

A year ago, Robert Bruner found himself in a discomforting place–at the end of a wagging finger and a hard-hitting question.

The dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business was in Shanghai at a reception for potential applicants to the school’s highly prestigious MBA program when a young Chinese woman stood.

“Why don’t you admit more Chinese?” she asked sharply. The room fell to a hush, waiting for Bruner’s answer.

He pointed out that China already was the most highly represented nation among Darden’s international students. To admit far more students from a single country would likely mean that Darden would offer less diversity in any given class and accept applicants who weren’t as qualified to attend its highly selective MBA program.

“Why would you go half way around the world to study with people exactly like you?” asked Bruner. “The point is to get out of your zone of comfort and stretch yourself against the very best talent in the world.”

The prospective applicant nodded and smiled. The point was made, and Bruner moved on to a softball question more typical in such settings. But the question lingered in his mind because Bruner believes there are few agendas more important to the future of business education than how a school achieves true globalization.

Is it by recruiting a more international student body and faculty? Teaching more case studies with global impact? Sending MBA candidates abroad for consulting assignments with foreign companies and multinationals working across many country borders? Investing in satellite campuses and research centers around the world? Or partnering with other business schools in far-flung corners of the globe?

To Bruner, 62, these are not academic questions. Like many of his business school rivals, he is actively grappling with these issues as his school attempts to prepare students for a truly global world. The difference may well be that he sees globalization as the new inflection point for management education and is hell bent on leveraging it to get Darden to the next level.

For most of the world’s leading business schools, 2011 was a year of recovery and discovery. Though applications for full-time MBA programs were generally down, the quality of the applicant pool was among the best ever. And most members of the Class of 2011 received more job offers from more companies than at anytime in the past four years. So when PoetsandQuants sought to select its first Dean of the Year honor, there was no shortage of worthy candidates.

At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Dean Garth Saloner opened the doors to a stunning $345 million campus that has transformed the school’s culture and way of teaching and reeled in an unprecedented $150 million gift to put his school at the forefront of social enterprise. At Harvard Business School, Dean Nitin Nohria helped to lead the famous institution into a bold and ambitious MBA curriculum overhaul. And at the Indian School of Business, Dean Ajit Rangnekar smartly guided the school through a crisis that led to the resignation of the institution’s founder and chairman—former McKinsey & Co. Managing Director Rajat Gupta—who was charged by the U.S. government of insider trading. Undaunted, Rangnekar secured accreditation for ISB, the first business school in South Asia to gain the imprimatur of the Association to Advance Collegiate School of Business.

But it was the understated Robert Bruner who rose to the top of the list. Why? As the chairman of a task force on the globalization of management, he brought much clarity and focus to one of the most pressing issues facing business schools today. In a surprisingly sobering report, Bruner and his colleagues took schools to task for their “fragmented and disjoined” efforts in globalization.

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  • Alois de Novo

    Two things:

    1) My impression is that people go to Darden because they’d prefer a less cosmopolitan experience. You know, the whole UVa, gentleman frat bro thing.

    2) This quote is, for want of a better word, shocking: “Jack, are you blogging? Are you tweeting?” … “Jack,” added Bruner, “get with social media. It’s important. This is your dean talking.”

    Indeed. OK, I’d like to go to a school (except I was in b-school when Twitter launched) where the administration and faculty maintain a policy of pristine isolation from social media. I see no distinction between Twitter and graffiti.

    Along with ethics, we should have some concern for our personal dignity. This is very little different from a suggestion that the poor guy get on MySpace and post some lewd picture of himself.

    The Internet is not an attractive place and no one improves his public image through increased Internet exposure. Not even Mr Obama.

  • Teobowfan

    Interesting take on Dean Bruner’s accomplishment. I concur with Alois that tweeting is vastly overrated. I can’t see a major rebuilding of Darden’s MBA programme and where is the competitive edge? Most of Darden’s application growth (as seen in other programmes) came from India and China and these countries make up most of Darden’s international intake. The European component has been meagre for many years. Subsitute the question: ‘Why not more Chinese students’ with Europeans. Darden is going for the low hanging fruits (India/China).

    in academic terms, I see neither any in-depth impact by Darden’s faculty nor student activities (compare Yale non-profit).

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