Darden’s Dean Reflects On Higher Ed Changes

Darden School's Bob Bruner

Darden School’s Bob Bruner

Robert F. Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, recently returned from the Shanghai Investing Summit, an event co-hosted by the Darden School to encourage cross-border investing and global business. It was his last official international engagement as dean and the swan song of a 10-year tenure. He will be succeeded by McKinsey & Co. senior partner Scott Beardsley on Aug. 1.

Bruner has been key in the globalization of Darden and management education generally. In 2011, he chaired a task force of nine business deans studying how management education should develop a more global outlook, work that earned him national “Dean of the Year” accolades from Poets&Quants. He has recruited top faculty from around the globe, ushered in growing classes of international students and partnered with top international companies, who today are hiring more Darden graduates than ever.

Q. You’ve just returned from Shanghai. What made the biggest impression on you there?

A. Everybody is talking about the slowdown of economic growth in China, potential causes and the implications for decision-makers. The purpose of a conference like ours is to bring decision-makers together in a way that helps them find their bearings. China is a one-party state and political dialogue does not occur so much between party and party as it occurs between smaller groups. Our conference helped that conversation and also brought in other countries from the Asia-Pacific region. It was very interesting to hear their comparisons and perspectives on China’s economic growth.

Q. In 2011, you chaired a task force mapping the globalization of management education, resulting in a book-length study. Four years later, how have you seen progress?

A. Some critics and observers alleged that business schools weren’t innovating or doing much, but we found exactly the opposite. We could show that the volume of cross-global partnerships and curriculum innovation among business schools was vaulting up, and make a case for continued globalization.

Four years later, the innovation that we saw is continuing to morph at a rapid rate. American business schools are drawing more international applicants and the curriculum is gradually becoming more global. Corporations are increasingly recruiting for global postings. I’m pleased to say that the international students who attend Darden are setting records this very spring in terms of job placements. We are seeing a much more global, experiential education. Just last week I took 26 Darden students to France, where we visited the battlefields of Normandy and discussed the complexities of the large international alliance that drove D-Day.

Q. What are the most significant challenges that you see ahead for management education? 

A. One is demographic change. The volume of applicants to business schools in the United States has plateaued or declined over the past few years. Internationally, the volume is accelerating. Changing demand across borders is going to challenge business schools, especially American schools used to enrolling primarily American students.

Additionally, the population of managers that we serve is aging. We need new programs and curricular offerings to serve those not only in early-stage careers, but also middle- and late-stage careers.

As discussed, globalization is an enormous force of change. The third force of change is technology and online learning. For Darden, as well as any of our peers, the question is not whether to adopt new technologies, but how? We are actively experimenting with that and have become one of the largest producers of massive open online courses. I expect that will continue.

Q. In your 10 years as Darden’s dean, what changes strike you as the most pronounced or significant? 

A. The global financial crisis and recession, which was the worst in many years. The accelerating adoption of new technologies is surprising to everyone. Only 10 or 15 years ago we were still focused on the personal computer; now the digital delivery of learning experiences has shifted from large-screen, fixed devices to very mobile devices. Coming over the horizon is the “Internet of Things” – new devices, smart watches and measurement devices of all kinds that I think will continue to change how people interact with educational institutions.

Q. Perhaps of equal importance, what has remained the same? 

A. Our students have a desire to learn from each other. That’s no surprise. It’s what we tell the world, and so we attract people who are willing to engage with others rather than sit and take notes for two years. We attract people who are willing to buy into the U.Va. honor code, which sets a demanding standard of personal integrity, not everyone’s cup of tea. We have students who have a keen appetite for the practical world of business, disproving a common criticism that business school students are very good at analyzing things, but cannot tell you what the analysis means. That’s not us; our students are very focused on taking action.

I want to speak to one other thing. There are so many generalizations about the millennial generation, but I’ve grown to believe that most of them are false, at least among the students that I see. I have not seen a large sense of entitlement and indeed have seen the counterfactual – a willingness to take action on behalf of the entire community and help others in a very collaborative sense. Those are not attributes of high self-entitlement. In the sample of students who come to us year after year, I see quite the opposite. I am actually quite an optimist about the millennial generation and their power to help the world.

Q. What is your biggest hope for your successor, Scott Beardsley? 

A. My big hope is that he has a very successful transition into the dean’s office. There is really no clear training that you can take to become a dean. You have a learning experience in the first year that is really phenomenal. He’s a wonderful man. I think he brings extraordinary life experience and perspective that can help the Darden School raise its game. We need to listen to him and we need to help him understand what is unique about Darden and what needs to be strengthened.

Q. What are you looking forward to about the next stage of your career? 

A. I am looking forward to returning to the classroom. That is what drew me into this career in the first place. I love case teaching, I love the interaction with students, I love seeing how they grow across the course experience. One of the things I love the most about teaching is the look of “aha!” in the eyes of students as they get a point.

Note: This interview was published by UVA Today.


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