RESTLESS FOR A CHANGE AND CAPTIVATED BY HIGHER EDUCATION
All this in just two years for someone who had never been in academia before. Yet, at McKinsey, Beardsley found himself in charge of the firm’s leadership development efforts and when he began to do the obligatory college visits with his sons, he began to muse about a second act as a university president. He says he was restless for a change after a quarter of a century at McKinsey and captivated by higher education.
He chronicles his failed attempts to gain a college presidency as a non-traditional candidate in a recently published book, Higher Calling, that partly resulted from his dissertation for an Executive Doctorate for Higher Education Management at the University of Pennsylvania. He enrolled in the novel two-year, part-time program, commuting to Philadelphia from Brussels for two days a month in the first year and one day monthly in the second.
When he discovered that Darden was searching for a dean to succeed Robert Bruner, he was in his second year of the program and eager to toss his hat into the ring. He sent his resume to the Korn/Ferry consultant in charge of the search in May, met with him over the summer, and had his first airport interview with members of the school’s search committee at Dulles International in Septemer. Little did he know that to gain the deanship, he would ultimately have to face hundreds of stakeholders in a grueling process that would last seven long months.
‘I HAVE APPLIED FOR EARLY DECISION’
Toward the end, when then UVA Provost John Simon asked him in December of 2014 where Darden stood among his options, Beardsley replied: “To use an undergraduate admissions analogy, you should considr that I have applied for Early Decision.”
A couple of days later, Simon called to tell him this his application for Early Decision had been accepted. The search came down to only a pair of finalists, someone Beardsley vaguely decribes as “an accomplished scholar with previous dean experience at a top business school,” and himself, the non-traditional candidate from McKinsey. Beardsley signed his contract on Christmas Eve and the official announcement of his appointment went public on Jan. 8, 2015.
He approached the job as he would any client assignment, with a focus on McKinsey-like fact-gathering and analysis. Almost immediately, Beardsley began his listening tour, which included three solid weeks of meeting the 70-plus faculty at Darden one on one for sessions ranging between one and four hours long. He spent many hours with Dean Bruner who had been Darden dean for a decade.
‘I HAD A RUNNING START AND DEAN BRUNER HAD A RUNNING FINISH’
“It was kind of like a relay race where he was running to the end with the baton and I was running to take it from him,” explains Beardsley. “I had a running start, and he had a running finish.”
He named strategy professor Michael Lenox the school’s first strategy chief and with Lenox’s help, they dug into the work. “We put together a realistic assessment of where we are versus our competition. We wanted to get input from all the stakeholders. We surveyed students. We gathered a tremendous amount of facts. We deconstructed the rankings, and we shared the facts with everyone. Dean Bruner left the school in good shape. He made it more global and lifted its standing. I wanted to build on his momentum.”
Of his review, he says, “I didn’t find a stinker. I found some great things. I found a group of people willing to try new things and an alumni group far more passionate about the school than I ever imagined.”
ONE AMBITIOUS GOAL: TO MAKE DARDEN’S MBA THE MOST AFFORDABLE & ACCESSIBLE PREMIUM PROGRAM IN THE U.S.
Beardsley’s overarching goals are ambitious. They are to make Darden the top public business school in the U.S., to put Darden firmly into the top ten of all business schools, to make the MBA program the most affordable and accessible in the U.S., and to maintain and build upon the school’s well-deserved reputation for having the best teaching in the world with the best student experience.
In fact, those last two already achieved objectives are something that Beardsley has no intention of ever touching. Third-party surveys of students and alumni by Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, and The Financial Times have consistently found over decades that no other business school in the world can beat Darden when it comes to the teaching quality of the professors in the school’s MBA classrooms.
“The norms around teaching here are just different,” says Chief Strategy Officer Lenox. “It’s cherished and celebrated. That is our competitive advantage. You just don’t see this happening at other schools. Instead, you hear professors ask each other, ‘Are you teaching now?’ And if the professor says yes, the reply is often, ‘I’m sorry.’ Teaching is considered a burden that gets in the way of research. It’s a pervasive notion in higher education and it also impacts faculty engagement with students.”
RECORD NUMBERS OF WOMEN, MINORITIES & INTERNATIONAL MBA STUDENTS
Still, Beardsley wants to advance scholarly research—but not at the expense of Darden’s obsession with masterful teaching ethos. He has doubled funding in support of research, increased case-writing support to four full-time case writers, and boosted the number of post-docs to seven from one as well as appointed a faculty member to lead the post-doc program.
In support of his overall objectives, he developed five strategic priorities (see table), including his number one consideration: To “attract exceptional students by delivering and enhancing the world’s best, affordable, global education experience.”
He means it. In his first 26 months, Beardsley has enrolled a record number of women, under-represented minorities, and international students in the full-time MBA program. The school’s average GMAT has gone from its previous high of 706 to a record 713, and Darden has increased its application volume by 10%.