On April 25, Len Schlesinger gave his last lecture as president of Babson College. In it, he quoted George Bernard Shaw and added a Babson twist, “‘Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.’ You go to any other school to find yourself, you go to Babson to create yourself,” Schlesinger concluded. He received a standing ovation.
It’s sound advice that Schlesinger has clearly heeded himself. The former COO and vice chairman of Limited Brands will wrap up his five-year term as president of the school today, leaving behind a legacy of change and a slew of new initiatives, particularly at Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Management. He hands the reins over to former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Dr. Kerry Healey on July 1.
Few college presidents have enjoyed Schlesinger’s success in advancing an institution. From trademarking a new method for teaching entrepreneurship (Entrepreneurial Thought in Action), which emphasizes rapid response, to unifying the MBA programs under one curriculum, Schlesinger guided the college through a series of major changes. His administration launched an Executive MBA program in San Francisco, established a sustainability office and built the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. The college raised some $216 million, the largest campaign in the school’s history, and celebrated its 20th consecutive year as No. 1 in Entrepreneurship in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking.
Despite these success and his optimism about Babson’s ability to create enterprising MBAs, Schlesinger expressed concern about the state of B-schools overall. “It’s just a jumbled mess,” he says. “It’s clearly an enormously confused time. There are questions about the value of business school, both technical value as well as economic value,” he says. “The definite, tangible learning outcomes are no longer as well understand as they have been in the past.”
Even worse, many B-schools are responding to the flux by running after ratings instead of innovating, Schlesinger says. “We have schools chasing the same outcomes toward rating improvement in a formulaic way, so there are a whole lot of schools pursuing a generic strategy, which is not very exciting.”
However, there are a few notable exceptions – Babson and Harvard Business School. Conveniently, he led the former as president and spent more than two decades teaching at the latter. After stepping down from Babson, Schlesinger plans to return to Harvard Business School, where he formerly headed up the MBA program, as the Baker Foundation Professor and an instructor in HBS’ Field Immersion and Experiential Leadership Development course. He will also continue to serve Babson in an advisory role as the school’s president emeritus.
Schlesinger is hopeful that the uncertain atmosphere in the MBA world can lead to new – and positive – outcomes. “The most interesting thing is that there is no central tendency for innovation in this space. It’s unstable and noisy enough to lead to substantive change,” he says.
Schlesinger has a few predictions as to what that might entail. For starters, he’s certain it will involve the Internet. “There’s no question in my mind that you will see more experimentation in a variety of ways in online modalities. It’s part of the universe of learning tools,” he says. “[Online education] is clearly something everyone has to notice.” He’s also adamant that B-schools with “vigorous and action-oriented” programs will stand out and give their students a leg up in a crowded MBA marketplace. Another important component will be entrepreneurship – the keystone of the Babson experience.
“There’s all sorts of discussion about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. As the president of Babson, my commitment is to a recognition that they can be made,” he says. Schlesinger is confident that even MBAs who don’t want to start businesses can befit from learning and practicing entrepreneurial thought and action. “They are more likely to be able to find and make economic opportunities, whether it’s with a startup or with a large organization,” he says. The school even went so far as to revise its mission statement to that end: “To educate entrepreneurial leaders who create great economic and social value everywhere.”
Schlesinger is hopeful that other business schools will follow suit and experiment with ways to set their students apart. “We ought to be able to practice what we preach. We ought to be able to develop a level of change in our education programs and methods that’s comparable to the pace of change in the outside environment,” he says. “I think over the last five years, Babson really upped its pace of change in a very material way, and I hope it sets an example for other institutions.”