Dean of the Year: Darden’s Robert Bruner

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

‘ALUMNI WERE ON HAPPY BECAUSE OUR RANKINGS WERE EBBING’

“Bob is an amazing professor,” adds Greg Fairchild, who had Bruner as his first-year finance teacher some 20 years ago and is now a Darden professor himself. “He understood the walk people had to take to get a difficult financial concept. He won’t do it in a ‘I’m-your-buddy’ way. He is a very formal guy so he creates comfort in the class through context. He had an iconic status.”

Bruner was in New York at Columbia University as a visiting scholar when he received a phone call from the president of the University of Virginia in 2005 asking him to return as interim dean. The school was in the midst of a troubled transition. A dean search failed to turn up any viable candidates partly because of governance issues between the school and the trustees of the Darden Foundation, which manages the school’s endowment, operates its executive education offerings and promotes philanthropic support by alumni and corporations.

And things were going south. “We had experienced a decline in applications over several years,” recalls Bruner. “We had students who were less than satisfied with the recruiting environment generally. Some faculty had left. Some alumni were unhappy about the school principally because our rankings were ebbing. And we had a failed dean search that year which is another yellow flag if not a red flag about things going on.”

‘I KIND OF FELL INTO THE JOB’

By then, Bruner had authored or co-authored some 20 books, including the 1,056-page door stopper Applied Mergers and Acquisitions, along with more than 250 case studies. Yet another book or a dozen more case studies seemed less a challenge to him than what he viewed as a “great no-fault opportunity to see what being a dean would be like. I said ‘yes’ out of many sentiments, not least of which was my concern for the school that I had worked at for 23 years. So I kind of fell into the job.”

Bruner threw all of himself into it. Within six months, he was asked to take on the deanship for a regular term. He painstakingly resolved the friction between the school and the foundation’s trustees by shepherding a memo of understanding through more than two dozen revisions. He engaged several teams of faculty and staff around a series of initiatives that would help to turnaround the school. He plowed considerably more money into scholarships to entice the best students to Darden. He beefed up the school’s faculty expertise in strategy, technology and operations, and ethics, helping to recruit many outstanding professors including Raul Chao in operations and Yael Grushka-Cockayne in decision analysis.

With little fanfare, Bruner also launched a major innovation and design effort in 2008 on the flagship MBA program that has since spawned nearly 40 experiments and changes that range from a program of coaching and personal development for students to new field-based experiential learning electives that include required trips abroad.

“This reflects one of my deepest held beliefs,” says Bruner. “In academia there is no more powerful force than peer pressure. What a leader does is help a circle of peers express their aspirations or values in useful and powerful ways. Almost without a dean’s heavy-handed intervention, the community gets on with it and begins to adapt. Numerous business schools are announcing major curriculum changes. I follow these with great interest and I stand in appreciation for what many if not all of them are doing. But the truth is I believe that innovation occurs in the small rather than in the large. I think that major change is an aggregation of many little bets that are made rather than by a generalissimo at the top of the command structure telling everybody this is how we are going to change.”