Dean of the Year: Darden’s Robert Bruner

As a young professor at Darden, Bruner quickly gained a reputation as one of the best cast study teachers of finance in the world

At Harvard, he was pulled aside and asked to choose a career in academia. Keen to earn a living, he took his MBA and signed up with First Chicago as a loan officer and investment analyst. One important benefit of the job: he met the woman who would become his wife on an elevator at the bank. Bobbie was then a summer intern from Harvard Business School who would use her MBA to work as a consultant for Bain & Co. until becoming director of strategic planning for a small high-tech firm in Boston.

At First Chicago, Bruner discovered not only love but what he loved to do with his job: “unearth new insights and then tell people about them.” That interest, he thought, qualified him to become a journalist, a securities analyst or an academic. The latter field most appealed to Bruner largely because he wanted to teach and write. So he returned to Harvard in 1977 to pursue a doctorate and then headed to Charlottesville, Va., to the Darden School to teach in 1982. It was a decision made with no regret.

DARDEN: WHERE EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING WAS PUT AHEAD OF THE ABSTRACT

Like Harvard, Darden was one of the few business schools to put excellence in teaching ahead of abstract scholarly research. To this day, you’re far more likely to hear professors in the hallways engaged in passionate discussions about teaching rather than their scholarly research. It was a perfect laboratory for a young professor inspired by some of the most outstanding teachers of his generation. At Darden, professors are committed to what is called “student-centered teaching” where instruction is less about cramming knowledge into people than listening hard to students and guiding them through that knowledge to some form of wisdom.

As Bruner explains it, “Before the teacher even walks into the classroom, he goes through the mental discipline of asking himself ‘where are the students now? What else is going on in their lives? How have my last five classes gone?’ You’re very attentive to the environment and the distractions. The student-centered teacher is less focused on forced feeding than on helping to create an appetite for learning, then serving up appetizers, main courses and juicy desserts to really fill up the student.”

Bruner thrived in Darden’s case study environment as both the consummate teacher and scholar. “Bob is arguably the best case teacher who has ever taught at Darden,” believes Trip Davis, a former MBA student of Bruner’s who is now president of the Darden School Foundation. “There is a remarkable clarity with which you end a Bruner class, and that’s the magic of case study teaching. You go through this 80-minute process of competing ideas and outcomes and this maestro professor brings it together inn the last three to ten minutes. Bob will lean against the sideboard scribbling down the takeaways from the class. The confusion melts away and you walk out with clear lessons.”

During the two years of the school’s MBA experience, a typical student will labor through 600 different case studies. Each of those cases, believes Bruner, is a practice or rehearsal for the real thing, all in the service of creating the kind of “muscle memory” that allows a violinist to get to Carnegie Hall or an MBA to become a successful business leader. “Those cases form an incredible mosaic of rehearsal, an opportunity for a person to try out all the different dilemmas,” says Bruner. “It’s not a punch list or a script of Arthur Murray dance steps. But it is a rehearsal to actually prepare you for a very volatile and uncertain world. It gives you a sense for how to get through.”