For an exceptionally bright economist who may very well have had a Nobel Prize in his future, Jonathan Levin seems remarkably suited to the detour his academic career has taken. The gentle, soft-spoken leader of the Stanford Graduate School of Business has absolutely no remorse about leaving his scholarly pursuits to take on the top administrative job at one of the world’s best business schools.
“I loved being a faculty member, and researching and teaching,” says Levin, who in 2011 won the John Bates Clark Medal, an award given to the American economist under the age of 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. “Part of what is wonderful about those activities is just the incredible freedom you get to explore whatever interests you and work with whoever you want, come up with ideas and flesh them out and then share them with people. It’s a great job. You can’t get a better job than being a professor.”
But what of being the top administrative officer of a business school, a job he has held for the past seven years since being drafted from Stanford’s economics department, where he had been department chair? “You get a different reward out of being an academic leader,” he muses. “You get to be part of a collective enterprise and share in other people’s victories and help try to make other people successful. When I started to do that, I really liked that, too, and I take tremendous pleasure in it.”
DEAN OF THE YEAR: STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS DEAN JON LEVIN
With quiet self-confidence and a deep well of humility, Levin has not merely brought stability to a school that had been wracked by scandal. He has put Stanford in the lead of all business schools on diversity and inclusion, making the GSB the first major institution to publish an annual report on its diversity progress. With the advantage of having one of the world’s best academic brands and the resources behind it, Levin has been able to recruit and retain the best faculty scholars on the market and to lead them in confronting many of the world’s biggest challenges. And no school–not even Harvard Business School–can lay claim to annually enrolling what is arguably the best and brightest MBA candidates year after year.
For much of its history, Stanford had been slightly behind Harvard in enrolling its admitted applicants. But under Levin, the school has now pulled ahead of its East Coast rival, persuading 96% of the students it admits to come to its bucolic campus in the heart of Silicon Valley. The GSB’s yield rate is now ten points higher than Harvard’s. The school, moreover, has an acceptance rate of just 6.2%, half that of the Harvard Business School. No less meaningful, Stanford has been solidly winning dual-admit candidates over HBS and outperforming the school in MBA rankings for the past four years in a row.
But it is his feel-good leadership style that has brought purpose to the school and praise from those in Levin’s orbit. His team at GSB often hears him say to always assume good intentions. “He wears that and lives by that,” says Paul Oyer, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “He is an endlessly optimistic, energetic, and smart leader, He’s very consensus-driven. He believes in getting a lot of input and building consensus, and he gets along with everybody.”
BRINGING THE FICTIONAL JED BARTLET OF WEST WING TO LIFE AT STANFORD GSB
To Derrick Bolton, associate dean for external relations, Levin reminds him of the West Wing fictional character on the TV series West Wing, Jed Bartlet. “He is a once-in-a-generation leader,” maintains Bolton, the former assistant dean for MBA admissions who rejoined the GSB after spending four years launching Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program. “We don’t often find someone who has the heart, mind, and soul that Jon does. He’s smart. He has great character. He approaches everybody with optimism and empathy. He is a happy warrior.”
For expertly leading Stanford into the modern age, Levin has been named Poets&Quants Dean of the Year for 2022. The 50-year-old economist is the 12th leader of a business school to earn this honor, joining a stellar cast of academic talent over the years that has included the leaders of Harvard Business School, the Yale School of Management, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business, the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and IE Business School in Spain.
Levin fits right into this company of excellence. Yet, his path to academia might well have been preordained by his parents. Levin’s father, Rick, also chose to study economics, becoming chair of the economics department at Yale and from 1993 to 2013 president of Yale University. His mother, Jane, who was a stay-at-home mom while raising Levin, would later teach humanities for 30 years.
STANFORD’S LEATHER JACKET-WEARING MATH PROF WHO INTRIGUED A YOUNG FRESHMAN
But the younger Levin disavows any notion that he merely followed in his father’s footsteps. “People always assumed I learned to love economics at the dining room table as a kid,” he laughs. “But the truth is we never discussed economics at the table. It was not of general interest. It was really later when I got to college.”
In his very first quarter as a 17-year-old freshman at Stanford University in 1990, he enrolled in an honors class taught by a well-known mathematician. “It had this very big impact on me,” Levin recalls. “The professor came into the class the first day wearing a leather jacket and there were 90 of us in the classroom. He came in and started writing math equations on the blackboard without even acknowledging the class. I had no idea what he was writing. The class ended and he walked out. The second day 60 people show up and he does the same thing. On the third day, he comes in and there are now maybe 45 of us left. This time he takes off his jacket, hangs it on the chair, and says, ‘The class is about the right size. Now I can start.’
“That class was the hardest class I had ever taken,” says Levin. “I felt that every person in that class was smarter than me and knew more math. I never had to work harder, and I didn’t understand a word in the classroom. I had to go home and figure everything out. And I loved it, actually. I loved having this thing that I didn’t understand, and you just work hard to get it. That is what research is. Research demands that you find something out there you don’t understand and you really want to figure it out. That class got me excited about figuring things out. It put the seed in my head. It lit a fire in me as a student.”
|Jonathan Levin||2022||Stanford Graduate School of Business||Stanford University|
|Jeffrey Brown||2021||Gies College of Business||University of Illinois|
|Scott Beardsley||2020||Darden School of Business||University of Virginia|
|Idie Kesner||2019||Kelley School of Business||Indiana University|
|Jim Jiambalvo||2018||Foster School of Business||University of Washington|
|Sally Blount||2017||Kellogg School of Management||Northwestern University|
|Santiago Iñiguez||2016||IE Business School||IE University/td>|
|Edward ‘Ted’ Snyder||2015||Yale School of Management||Yale University|
|Paul Danos||2014||Tuck School of Business||Dartmouth College|
|Roger Martin||2013||Rotman School of Management||University of Toronto|
|Nitin Nohria||2012||Harvard Business School||Harvard University|
|Robert Bruner||2011||Darden School of Business||University of Virginia|
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