Harvard Business School Dean To Call It Quits

hbs dean nitin nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

After a decade as dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria announced today (Nov. 6) that he will step down from his job at the end of the current academic year, on June 30, 2020. His departure sets the stage for Harvard University to name its first female dean of the business school, and the leading candidate is Youngme Moon, an accomplished leader in her own right and one of HBS’s master teachers.

Under Nohria, Moon has served as senior associate dean for strategy and innovation, as well as senior associate dean for the MBA program. She has received the HBS Student Association Faculty Award for teaching excellence seven times; she is also the inaugural recipient of the Hellman Faculty Fellowship, awarded for distinction in research.

Nohria’s decision to step down caught his faculty by surprise. But sources tell Poets&Quants he had been disappointed when passed over for the presidency of Harvard University, a post that was won by the 68-year-old Lawrence Bacow who assumed office in July of last year. An economist and lawyer, Bacow, who succeeded Drew Gilpin Faust, had been president of Tufts University for ten years from 2001 to 2011 and had been serving as the leader-in-residence at Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership.

“The time feels right to transition to new leadership,” Nohria, 57, wrote in a letter to the HBS community obtained by Poets&Quants. “Ten years gave us a good run to make progress on our Five I priorities. A decade for HBS’s tenth dean seems an appropriate duration for this chapter in the school’s history.” Nohria has not yet decided what his next chapter will be, deciding to take a sabbatical beginning in July 2020.


Nohria will leave the job with a host of impressive accomplishments. Beyond the expected list of milestones in a press release, however, he also became the first dean of the Harvard Business School to apologize for the school’s past treatment of women. Five years ago, at a ballroom in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, Nohria conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school,” he told a hushed room. “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

And in 2012, he dealt with great sensitivity and humanity with a major tragedy on campus, the death of a 31-year MBA student who would have graduated from the school four days later.  Nate Bihlmaier died from an accidental drowning in Portland, Maine, while out celebrating his upcoming graduation with classmates. Nohria rushed to the scene to lend support and encouragement. He comforted family members and students, openly praised the integrity and intelligence of the missing student to reporters anxious to portray him as a spoiled rich kid, and pulled every string a Harvard Business School dean could muster to insure the search was a top priority. He was named Dean of the Year in 2012 by Poets&Quants, partly for how he rose to that awful challenge.

More recently, though, Nohria also disappointed many in the business school community by declining to support with more than 50 other deans of business schools an open letter in support of major changes to this administration’s immigration policies. The deans called for a wide range of remedies in a 32-page white paper that included an increase in the current cap on H-1B visas and an absolute exemption toward the cap for in-demand jobs. It was signed by the deans of Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth as well as Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Indiana University, and the University of North Carolina (see the full list here).


Yet, you would be hardpressed to find a better advocate for skilled immigration than Nohria whose life has been shaped by his experience in America. Born and raised in India, he came to the U.S. for graduate school in the early 1980s, became a citizen and has lived here ever since, becoming the first dean of the Harvard Business School from outside North America. Brian Kenny, an HBS spokesperson, says that Nohria decided against signing the document because “he bears the title of dean, he would invariably be seen as claiming to speak for the entire faculty — something he and his colleagues think it unwise to do, no matter how seemingly straightforward the issue.”

His decision not to sign the letter reflects his often conservative nature. As one admirer tells Poets&Quants, “Nitin is a wonderful person with incredible patience and erudition as well as a charming personality. His beautiful letter, which of course he authored himself, shows just that rare eloquence and vision for an administrator. He is really a gem. However, he is a bit too risk-averse and has succeeded heavily by unifying fractious faculty but no huge leaps forward. He will surely be given wonderful new leadership opportunities.”

Nonetheless, Nohria will leave a rich legacy at Harvard Business School. Among other things, he has raised more money than any other business school dean in history, bringing in an unprecedented $1.4 billion in the university’s capital campaign which ended last year. That sum easily surpassed the school’s original goal by nearly $400 million. The gifts funded faculty development, student financial aid, and additions and upgrades to the school’s residential campus, including Tata Hall, Esteves Hall, the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, Klarman Hall, and the Schwartz Common. During his deanship, the HBS endowment grew from $2.1 to $3.8 billion as of June 30, 2019, and the school’s annual revenues have grown from $509 million to nearly $1 billion.

Drew Faust, who led Harvard University as president from 2007 until 2018,  offered praise for Nohria in a statement. “Nitin Nohria has drawn on his expertise and his experience to be an outstanding leader for Harvard Business School,” she said.  “He took to heart the School’s mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. Whether launching new pedagogies, investing in the faculty and their research, or building bridges from the Business School to other parts of Harvard, Nitin has positioned HBS well to face the 21st century. Moreover, he was a trusted and influential voice within our Deans’ Council on matters of University-wide concern. It was a privilege to work with him, and I feel fortunate to count him as a friend.”


Harvard Business School’s Youngme Moon

He also led a major revamp to the school’s MBA curriculum, changes that were guided by Moon and that resulted in the first significant departure from the school’s case study method of teaching. The school launched a major experiential learning initiative, a required MBA course called FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) to complement the case method. Though HBS scaled back one element of FIELD that required students to work on a startup, FIELD  sends more than 900 students abroad each year to work on new product or process delivery projects with global partners. Today, in addition to FIELD in the first year, more than two dozen elective courses incorporate the field method and real-world experience as a core component of the learning model.

Nohria also greenlit the school’s major investment in online education, funding a proprietary platform that has set the standard for long-distance learning by a business school. The school’s initial foray in the online space, its CORe (Credential of Readiness) program of business basics, also was guided by Moon. CORe has been taken by more than 20,000 learners, spanning college students to mid-career professionals. More than 10 additional courses are now offered, including a number using a live virtual classroom.

In a news announcement of Nohria’s decision, the school noted that 31 faculty members have been appointed or promoted to Professor during his tenure, and nearly 200 tenure-track and practitioner faculty members have been recruited to the School. Annual investment in research has increased from $97 million to $151 million, and projects and initiatives have been launched on U.S. Competitiveness, Behavioral Finance and Financial Stability, Digital, and Business History. Global Research Centers, which support research and course development, were added in Istanbul (Middle East and North Africa), Singapore, Israel, and Johannesburg (Africa).

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