Interview: Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin

Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin

With the coming revolution in artificial intelligence and machine learning, the naysayers are spinning all kinds of doomsday scenarios about the likely dislocation of workers and massive unemployment. Robots will replace blue collar workers, they predict, and algorithms will displace white collar professionals.

Jonathan Levin’s response to the anxiety? Bring it on.

The tenth dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business views change as pure opportunity. In an interview with Poets&Quants, Levin says he is recruiting and hiring faculty to help students learn how to cope with the vast changes AI, machine learning and data science are bringing to organizations. He laughingly shrugs off any suggestion that MBAs will be replaced by computer algorithms in the future.

‘WHAT MBA STUDENTS LEARN IS GOING TO BE MORE IMPORTANT AS WE AUTOMATE SKILLS THAT ARE ROUTINE’

In fact, he says, the basic skills taught MBA students are more likely to protect them from whatever upheaval occurs. “How to think critically, how to ask the right questions, and how to be effective leaders and collaborators are really durable skills,” says Levin. “They are going to be more important as we automate skills that are routine or are non-collaborative. I think we are going to see the ascendency of the MBA skill set.”

“All the changes in technology are right here in this ten-mile radius around where we sit. If you look at the way this technology wave is going, a lot of the decisions about how these technologies are developed and deployed are going to get made in the private sector. The students we are educating are going to be making those consequential decisions. We have to try to equip them so they can make those decisions thoughtfully and responsibly. We want to be proud of the decisions they are making.”

Levin believes there could be no better time to be in an MBA program. “When you have a situation where there are big changes going on in the world, it’s an incredible opportunity for an educational institution because people are interested in learning,” he says. “It just galvanizes people’s attention and they want to understand what is going on. That is the best thing that can happen at an educational institution. People are focused and excited. It’s sort of what you hope for.”

‘WHAT I LOVED ABOUT RESEARCH WAS THINKING THROUGH PROBLEMS’

Having recently celebrated his two-year anniversary as dean of Stanford’s business school in September, Levin says he has no regrets about giving up his career as a serious scholar in the field of economics for an administrative job, even though he had won in 2011 what many consider to be the baby Nobel Prize, the John Bates Clark Medal. “What I loved about research was the thinking through problems,” says Levin. “That’s what was fun. You see a big problem and you ask yourself, ‘Do I have something to say about that?’ You get to do that also when you are in a leadership role in a university. You get to do it working with lots of faculty and students instead of your two collaborators.”

Besides, he notes, his deanship is not all that different for him. “I have been at Stanford for almost my entire professional career and I had been a student and faculty member and a department chair. I love being around the faculty and I knew coming in that the GSB had this extraordinary interdisciplinary faculty,” Levin adds. “They are great researchers, and I love being around the students. My sister had been an MBA student here and she learned an incredible amount and formed amazing connections with her classmates and the faculty here. It’s like a transformative experience being a student here so I had seen that through her eyes when she was a student and I had a sense of the role the business school played in the university, partly from personally collaborating with people here and having students in my classes and being involved in university governance.”

He also came on board at an opportune time. The university has just launched a long-range planning process, allowing Levin to play a key role in re-imagining the business school’s role at the university. “The collaboration across the schools has been a big focus here and it’s been a priority for the new president,” adds Levin.  “So I got this opportunity right from the start to think about not just the future of the GSB but how the school can contribute to the university.”

‘IT’S HARD TO WALK ON THIS CAMPUS WITHOUT FEELING GOOD’

In his first year at dean, Levin traveled the world to meet alumni, a part of the job that made him realize how different his deanship of a business school would be from his days as a professor in the university’s economics department. “Everywhere I went, alumni told me stories about how the school changed their lives,” he says. “They feel this profound emotional attachment. It’s really inspiring. It makes you excited about the mission of the school. In economics, you go around and present your paper and people tell you everything that is wrong with it. Ten years later, people come around to the view because they think it through themselves and say that was a pretty good idea there. But at the time they just see all the problems.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Levin reflects on the MBA experience at the GSB, his priorities as dean, the unusual co-teaching model at Stanford that brings together faculty with practitioners in half of the elective units at the business school, and the future of management education. The son of former Yale University President Richard Levin had earned his BA and BS degrees from Stanford in 1994 and returned to teach at the university in 2000 after earning his PhD in economics from MIT in 1999.

There’s no question he is at home here on the Stanford grounds. “It’s hard to walk on this campus without feeling good,” he admits.

The 46-year-old Levin displays the youthful exuberance of someone two decades younger. He displays unbridled enthusiasm for the school he now leads, and he shows great pride in the inspiring achievements of the GSB’s alumni. An unabashed optimist who is easy to laugh, Levin takes a positive view of the challenges facing business and the management education field. “I’m an optimist about the world,” he declares, with a wide smile. “That is a good match for Stanford because this is fundamentally an optimistic place. I’m going to give you an optimistic answer no matter the situation.”

Asked about the growing sense that capitalism is broken, Levin acknowledges that “you hear that coming from journalists and from business leaders and investors and from our students and faculty. This is an important topic of discussion and this is the right place to have that discussion. You want to have that discussion in a place where you can draw on lots of expertise at an academic institution that values inquiry and you can be exposed to different views. That’s actually important. You don’t want everyone to agree. You want people to come in and argue points and counterpoints and for the students to form their own views.”

‘IT’S A REALLY IMPORTANT TIME FOR MANAGEMENT EDUCATION’

An afternoon tea with Dean Levin led to a novel course to be co-taught by Fei-Fei Li

When Levin became dean in September of 2016, he set for himself three core priorities: To sustain and build on the school’s research mission, to extend the global reach of the school, and to more deeply collaborate with the rest of the university.  He identifies his primary challenge as not merely keeping up with the changes occurring in the world of business and technology bur rather getting ahead of the big changes that are happening in the world.

“The history of the school is trying to pursue great scholarship in academic research and also great management leadership education,” he believes. “That dual mission of bringing those things together is central to the school. So my job is to sustain and strengthen both those elements, and they are both changing and that is what is interesting. The advent of data science and the ability to collaborate with companies, government agencies and social organizations is creating all kinds of new opportunities.

“For our students, the world is changing. Technology is changing, and the expectations for business leaders are changing. The questions today are about what is the role business should play in society and how will the private sector address fundamental challenges around inequality, globalization, diversity and sustainability. It’s a really important time for management education.”

One way to address these issues, he thinks, is through more interdisciplinary collaboration. One example Levin cites is a new course called Designing AI To Cultivate Human Well-Being that will debut in the upcoming winter quarter. The idea for the course came from Levin after having tea in his home with Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science at Stanford and the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, who also happens to be a neighbor.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.