Why Stanford Named Jonathan Levin Its New B-School Dean

 
When Jonathan Levin’s father was named president of Yale University in 1993, the general consensus was that Richard Levin would certainly have his hands full. After all, it was said, he had taken on what many considered a turnaround job at Yale with scant administrative experience, little recognition and little gravitas.

The same cannot be said of his 43-year-old son, Jonathan, who will become the dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business on Sept. 1. Though his resume is short on leadership knowhow, Jonathan Levin boasts big time academic gravitas, having won the John Bates Clark Medal, one of the economics profession’s highest honors and often a harbinger of a Nobel Prize.

While some MBA students and alumni believe the university could have hired an accomplished “rock star” already in the business school world, Levin’s academic colleagues lavish much praise on the man whose appointment was announced last week (May 23) by the university. They uniformly describe him as a well-liked team player, a down-to-earth person of high integrity and deep intellect.

Many echo the words of Darrell Duffie, who teaches finance at the GSB and believes Levin’s appointment “makes perfect sense. His research taste and depth in a number of key areas, such as market design, make him a natural choice to lead the GSB. Jon has the complete package of leadership skills.”

A NEW, AND UNFAMILIAR, ROLE

Levin was given the nod after a long and intensive search lasting nearly eight months. That search by a 13-person committee co-chaired by Provost John Etchemendy unearthed multiple candidates. In choosing Levin, however, the university effectively made a safe choice, narrowing in on a highly pedigreed candidate known to both President John Hennessy and Provost Etchemendy. Levin currently serves on the university budget group, which puts together the university’s $5 billion-plus budget and capital plan, and reports directly to Etchemendy. Since at least 2010, Levin’s university service on various commitees and councils, including the provost’s diversity cabinet, suggest a grooming of sorts for an administrative role. Those assignments would have given him exposure to the university’s most influential leaders.

As dean, Levin, a professor at Stanford since 2000 who chaired the university’s economics department for three years until 2014, will lead a school with a $225 million annual budget, 1,000 students and 272 faculty members — an administrative role for which he seems to have had little preparation, having worked in applied economics with interests in industrial organization, market design and the economics of technology.

His Department of Economics colleagues seem unconcerned that Levin will rise to the new challenge. They laud him for his commitment to research and teaching, his intellectual range, and, drawing a contrast with his predecessor, stress that he is a “unifier.” They uniformly say he is well-liked and admired by just about everyone and is a team player rather than a lone wolf.

HIS WORK CUT OUT FOR HIM

Levin “has an extraordinary ability to get the input of very different groups of stakeholders,” says Timothy Bresnahan, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “As chair, he was universally respected by students, faculty, friends of Stanford and the university administration. He’s a unifier who, having taken counsel with a lot of different folks, will draw on his own ability to see the right answer and bring people on board to it.”

Levin succeeds scandal-plagued Garth Saloner, who announced his retirement last fall after news broke of his affair with a professor, Deborah Gruenfeld, who was married to another professor at the school. Even as he carried on the affair, Saloner continued to preside over personnel decisions impacting the husband, Jim Phills, who alleged that he was dismissed from his position and has since sued the university.

Levin’s new role comes with other complications, including accusations by 46 current and former GSB employees who accused Saloner of disrupting the collegial, close-knit culture of the school and turning it into an environment of fear and intimidation. Those current and former employees had unsuccessfully urged the university not to reappoint Saloner to a second term, claiming that he created a “hostile workplace” in which staff, particularly women and people over 40, were hounded out of jobs and roles amid numerous violations of Stanford’s Code of Conduct and HR policies (see Anatomy Of A Rebellion: Inside The Revolt Against Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner).

What the scandal hasn’t diminished is the business school’s popularity among applicants and students. Levin will become dean of the most highly selective elite business school in the world. Stanford receives nearly 20 applications for each of the 406 seats in its incoming class, accepting little more than 6% of its applicant pool. The school’s graduates are the most highly compensated MBAs in the world. Last year, the median total pay package–including base, signing bonus and guaranteed year-end bonus–came to a record total of $160,287.