Dean of the Year: Darden’s Robert Bruner

Darden Dean Bob Bruner


For those students, Bruner made it real, borrowing experiences he had as a loan officer and investment analyst for First Chicago Corp. from 1974 until 1977. And most importantly, he brought to the class a generous heart, passion, intellectual curiosity and a servant mindset. As Bruner puts it, “Nothing energizes me more than to see the light bulb go off in a student’s eyes after wrestling with some kind of problem. I don’t think you can be a great teacher if that doesn’t excite you. You may be an adequate teacher. You may be capable of presenting material. But you have to be drawn by that zest for discovery because all great work of any kind starts from the heart.”

Bruner’s devotion to teaching business can be traced to his parents who both played iconic roles in his early choices in Racine, Wisconsin, where he was raised. His mother, who earned a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Chicago in the 1930s, was a professor of English at a small college in Wisconsin. She taught him to read, gifting Bruner with a love of literature and the written word. His father, who graduated near the top of his Harvard Business School in 1925, was a businessman and entrepreneur.

During the Depression, he fell into bankruptcy—the result of having borrowed money to buy the stock of an employer who went under. For a time, he ate candy bar lunches and bought the cheapest cuts of meat to cook at home. Bruner’s father ultimately repaid his debts and persuaded the same bank to back his investment in several bus and trolley lines in the Midwest that were acquired after the utility companies were forced to divest them under New Deal regulations.


Bruner goes misty-eyed recalling the events. “I remember the story of his financial ruin and his recovery with some emotion yet today because it took extraordinary courage for him to work himself out of debt and pick himself back up,” says Bruner. “When I think of the students we prepare here, I bear in the back of my mind my image of him. He would go to work every day not knowing what was going to land on his desk, but almost rubbing his hands with glee waiting to go into the office because he so enjoyed the work of administration and keeping a community we call a company together.”

Bruner went to Yale University, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1971, and then worked in the political campaign to elect economist Les Aspin to Congress as a peace candidate opposing the Vietnam War. Bruner then followed his father into Harvard Business School, enrolling in the MBA program in 1974. His interest in finance was ignited by his first-year finance professor named John McArthur, a rising star in the faculty who would later serve a 15-year stint as dean of HBS.

McArthur advised Bruner on a second-year paper on a Boston bank that had become one of the pioneers of ATM machines. Recalls Bruner: “He would ask questions just relentlessly rather than tell us what to do. He was a Socratic teacher, not only in the classroom, but in private engagement with students and that made a big impression on me.”


While McArthur would become a mentor, Bruner also found himself greatly influenced by two other Harvard stars: Tony Athos in organizational behavior and C. Roland Christensen in business policy and strategy, both exceptionally talented teachers. “They just helped me discover new things about the world and myself,” says Bruner. “They were charismatic in very different ways. When we think of charisma in teaching today, we think of it as a showboaty style with lots of wow and sizzle. I prefer to think of charisma as really connecting with students in a powerful and personal way. All three of those professors were simply transformational for me.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.