Betting The Future Of A B-School On The Future

by John A. Byrne on

Dean Kenneth Freeman of Boston University's School of Management

Soon after Kenneth Freeman arrived as the new dean of Boston University’s School of Management two years ago, he began talking about a rather audacious goal: To ultimately convince people that there are really three elite business schools in Boston.

A pipedream to think that BU could spring to mind with such world class players as the Harvard Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management?

After all, an impartial observer wouldn’t even call this a David vs. Goliath match. The school significantly trails its rivals in every ranking of MBA education. Its endowment is well under $100 million, a mere fraction of Harvard’s $2.8 billion. Less than one in ten alums donate money to the school in any given year, about a third of the total at either MIT or Harvard.

Freeman, however, doesn’t think his goal is unreachable. In fact, to realize his dream, the former chief executive of Quest Diagnostics Inc. is betting the future of the school on the future.

A BIG BET ON HEALTH CARE, ALTERNATIVE ENERGY, AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

The school has identified the three sectors of the economy where it believes, in his words, “there will be more job creation, more financial market creation, and more value creation for societies, communities and countries over the next five, ten and 20 years.” With faculty approval gained earlier this year, Freeman is now aligning the school’s professors, research, and curriculum around the three growth areas.

The three are health care and life sciences, digital technology, and alternative energy and sustainability. In academia where loyalty is to a discipline rather than an industry or economic sector, Freeman, 62, is attempting a revolutionary change in both mindset and behavior. Whether the Harvard MBA can pull it off is anyone’s guess, but the odds are certainly not in his favor.

The single biggest challenge, of course, will be to convince faculty to focus on the three sectors when they have already hitched their careers to disciplines, such as accounting, finance, marketing, or strategy. Concedes N. “Venkat” Venkatraman, a long-time management professor at the school, “Faculty members aren’t drawn to the sectors as easily as employers and students. But I don’t think that we can distinguish the school by only writing in academic journals.”

PLANS TO RECRUIT NEW FACULTY, CREATE ACADEMIC CENTERS AND CASE CONTESTS

To make those sectors an integral part of Boston’s culture and approach, Freeman plans to recruit new faculty, create academic centers in each field, launch global case competitions in each area, and infuse much of the coursework with case studies and experiential projects in each of the three industries. “We’re recruiting for specific disciplines but we are also doing it with a twist by focusing on specialization in digital technology, the health sector or energy,” he says. “We want to create leading global institutes in each of these sectors to engage faculty here and with other institutions. For us to be distinguished, we have to have cutting-edge research in these fields.”

For incoming students, the focus on those three areas starts immediately. “When students arrive we provide them with a brief overview of those sectors and then they move through the traditional management discipline training,” adds Freeman. “We are transforming case content to reflect these sectors much more so than the traditional sectors of the past. And the classroom discussions will be supplemented by lectures from today’s executives in these fields.”

He then expects graduates, 40% of which now enter finance and consulting, to stream into those high-growth fields. “There might be some heavy lifting here but this is where the jobs are going,” insists Freeman.

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