Dean of the Year: Darden’s Robert Bruner

Dean Bruner at Darden’s morning ritual for students and staff: First Coffee

GLOBALIZATION VIEWED AS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY

Bruner decried what he called a “sizable gap between what the world needs and what management educators do.” No less crucial, though, he sees globalization as not merely a hefty challenge confronting academia but rather a great opportunity to play a sweeping role in shaping the future of management education.

His leadership role on the issue came naturally because over the course of his more than six years as dean of Darden, Bruner has shaken the institution out of a malaise that had threatened its stature as one of the world’s finest business schools. After several years of decline in applications to its flagship MBA program, Bruner has dramatically rebuilt the base of Darden’s applicants so that there are now eight applicants for each available seat. He restored the hiring of top faculty, having brought aboard more than one in four of the school’s 70-member faculty. And in the worst economic environment in memory, he has raised $100 million toward a $150 million fundraising goal. Not surprisingly, Darden has inched higher in business school rankings, even achieving the highly coveted rank of first place in BusinessWeek’s most recent poll measuring student satisfaction.

With his oval tortoise shell glasses, dark conservative suits and formal manner, Bob Bruner could easily be mistaken for a 1950s’ Organization Man. Plop a fedora on his head and you could imagine him waiting on a suburban platform for a commuter train into Chicago or New York. Bruner’s unadventurous appearance, however, belies his nonconforming character and style of leadership.

A PROLIFIC AND ASTUTE BLOGGER ON HIGHER EDUCATION

Among business school deans, he is one of the leading social media mavens, a prolific and astute blogger and tweeter. He began regularly blogging in July of 2006 with a trenchant post on the role of business schools in society and hasn’t stopped since, tackling every subject, no matter how controversial or provocative, from the value of an MBA to his views on business school rankings. Among his 1,559 tweets are a constant stream of recommendations for movies, books and articles to capsule reports of his whereabouts and doings, including his frequent hosting of students at home “4 beer and lasagna,” as one recent message put it.

An avid outdoorsman who has paddled 301 miles of the James River in Virginia and is often seen biking the hilly countryside roads around Charlottesville, he’s also a lover of opera (his favorite is Mozart’s Don Giovanni). Bruner devours between 30 and 50 books a year (the tome that has had the greatest influence on him is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he first read at the age of 11.) His idea of a good evening is to spend it experimenting in the kitchen, which is why his personal website includes a recipe for veal piccata, a dish taught to him by a former Harvard Business School classmate.

Before he was drafted as interim dean in 2005, he was known as a master in the classroom, one of the best case study teachers of finance in the world. “He is the teachers’ teacher,” says Peter Tufano, dean of the University of Oxford’s Said School of Business, who has known Bruner as a fellow finance professor at both Harvard Business School and Darden. “Beyond being a master of his subject, Bob cares deeply about learning and his students. This translates into a dedication to excellence in education and a sensitivity to understanding what works and doesn’t work.”

He fell in love with teaching shortly after walking to the front of a Northeastern University classroom for the first time in the early 1980s to teach part-time undergraduate students in an introductory finance course. At the time, Bruner had returned to Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA in 1974, to study for a doctorate in finance.

“I remember it was hot, the windows had to be open,” he says. “The trolleys on Huntington Avenue were rolling back and forth. I remember it fondly. What I gained was an appreciation for the sheer drive that some of the students had to make something of themselves. They were clerks in companies. They didn’t have the money to go to a full-time program. They were literally bootstrapping their way up in life and they were really eager to learn. They didn’t have a lot of time to marinate in the niceties of formulas and lofty abstractions of finance.”