Dean Of The Year: Jon Levin Of Stanford Graduate School Of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business

MBA students outside class. Photo Credit: Elena Zhukova


During his undergraduate years, he took an economics course taught by the Socratic method by Donald Brown, then worked during the summer months for two economists. The experience hooked him on the discipline. “They both got me interested and I liked mathematical thinking but also the real world and practical problems and that got me interested in graduate school.”

After earning his degree with a double major in mathematics and English in 1994, Levin went straight to Oxford University to earn a master’s in economics and then a Ph.D. in the field from MIT in 1999. He moved west, joining the faculty in Stanford’s economics department, and in short order began collecting honors and awards, from the Best Paper Award in microeconomics from the American Economic Journal in 2014 to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. The biggest prize, however, came when he was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 2011, regarded as the most distinguished economic title after the Nobel Prize.

The scholarly dedication he had shown through those years came to something of an end when the university asked him to take over its business school in 2016, succeeding Garth Saloner who announced his resignation after news broke of an 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.


Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business Dean Jonathan Levin

The university could not have picked a better person for the job. Levin walked into a toxic situation, one in which accusations by 46 current and former GSB employees 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).

A well-liked team player, a down-to-earth person of high integrity and deep intellect, Levin was exactly what the school needed at the time and he rose to the challenge. But Levin is not a natural extrovert. His first welcome as dean to the newly enrolled MBA students in the Class of 2018 was awkward or, in the words of one observer, “terrible.” Over time, however, the brilliant economics scholar has become a strong and impactful leader, a dean whose aspirations for his school, his faculty, and his students know few bounds.

Ask him what he is most proud of as dean and his answer betrays his self-effacing nature. “That’s easy, actually,” he responds. “It’s the state of the school. Every day I develop more of an appreciation for the school. It’s such an extraordinary place to have this world-class scholarly faculty with two Nobel prize winners in the past three years. To marry that with the leadership education that happens here is amazing. When the school is at its best, there is a virtuous circle between those two things: the faculty and the leadership education we deliver. It’s just dynamite. What I am most proud of is to just be part of that.”


Levin is guided in his own leadership of the school by what former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once said. “He had a saying that always had a big impact on me: ‘The business of running academic institutions is very simple. You try to recruit the best faculty and the best students. Give them the resources they need and get out of their way.’ It takes some work but he was right. It’s important to focus on what’s important and that is having great faculty and great students and getting out of their way.”

That expressed belief, however, diminishes his leadership skills. Oyer recalls a session with a disenchanted individual who came to Levin’s office to express his disappointment. “We had a meeting with someone and it was going to be very contentious,” he says. “The person was very unhappy and he had a health problem along with all his grievances. I was a dean in the headlights. But Jon looked at him and in the sincerest way possible addressed his illness first. Then he addressed the issues and said ‘no.’ He is just very good at thinking about the right thing to say in the moment.”

The single biggest challenge of his deanship, of course, was the global pandemic that forced the school to shut down its classrooms and lecture halls and teach MBA students online. The school went virtual over a weekend in March of 2020 after University Provost Persis Drell canceled all in-person class meetings, declared that all exams be taken remotely, suspended all spring quarter international programs and shut down Admit Weekend.

“I am very proud of how the school got through it and reacted to it but I would not sign up to do that again,” says Levin. “The biggest challenge in the MBA program was just recognizing how much of what is great about being a student at Stanford is being around other people. For a student, it’s getting to be in the classroom with the faculty and your peers and talking and interacting with them. It’s where all of the serendipitous and spontaneous interactions happen. And that is how great research happens from the faculty. You get ideas chatting with people after a seminar or over lunch. When you have to schedule meetings on Zoom, all of a sudden you just lose all of that and it’s just not the same.”


That said, Levin believes there were two “huge lessons” from the pandemic. “One of them was a silver lining: The realization of how much you could do virtually and how powerful the technology had gotten and how creative and innovative people could be. That is going to have lots of long-term dividends. There has been more innovation in two and one-half years than probably in the prior 30 because of the necessity of having to do it.”

“The other big lesson was that really great MBA education was meant to be in person,” believes Levin. “There is something about being in person that you cannot replicate yet. For me, it really affirmed the value of residential education and being on a campus. One thing I’ve noticed now that we are back to normal is that people have more gratitude for the opportunity to be in a place like this. Over time you can take it for granted a little bit. But when you lose it and it comes back, you walk on the campus and you think ‘Wow this is great. This is really nice to see everyone interacting and sharing ideas and developing relationships.'”

The COVID pandemic, of course, changed nearly everything. But Levin was determined to do everything he could to safely support the return of faculty, staff and students to campus. Kirsten Moss, assistant dean of MBA admissions and financial aid, recalls the decision to hold the first Admit Weekend in person after all public meetings had been shut down for fear of a super spreader event. “We were going to announce that we could open our doors so we designed it to take place outdoors for 250 new MBA admits,” she says. “We were the first business school to do that.”


Moss, who says Levin has been the “favorite boss I have ever worked with,” has been most impressed by Levin’s incontrovertible integrity. “There are a lot of hard things in admissions and Jon has always been there to do the right thing, even when it’s not the easy thing. He leads with questions, not answers. He is open to disagreement and is always curious.”

A compelling example was set in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Three years ago in 2019, the GSB released a massive, detailed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) report that was the first of its kind among business schools in America: a highly detailed report that laid bare the school’s statistics as well as a slate of formidable aspirations (see How Stanford Is Tackling Diversity & Inclusion).

The GSB also launched the BOLD Fellowship (Building Opportunities for Leadership Diversity), a foundation aiming to help close intergenerational wealth gaps among admits often experienced by Black and other minority groups. The school also hired a Director of Diverse Alumni Communities, Allison Rouse, to increase and deepen engagement with a diverse alumni community. To hold itself accountable, the GSB also created a DEI Council that began playing a critical role in advancing the work to empower the school to be more inclusive in early 2021.


Ultimately, Levin established five main DEI goals: To increase the diversity of the Stanford GSB community, create an inclusive classroom and learning experience, cultivate a welcoming campus, empower under-represented communities, and support new research efforts. Earlier this year, Stanford GSB became only the second M7 business school to align with The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a national nonprofit organization focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in graduate business education. The Consortium helps to bring more minority candidates to top MBA programs with personal mentoring and scholarship funds.

Reflecting back on the publication of an annual accounting of the school’s DEI efforts, Levin believes it was the right thing to do. “At the time,” says Levin, “it was a natural decision because we are a place that believes in transparency and putting things out there. This was in line with being open and out with what you’re doing and showing some of the places where we could up our game and do better. It was very helpful in that regard and got discussions started here. We have been able to increase the diversity of the student population and make progress on the faculty and the curriculum. That has been a really good effort and you see other business schools doing exactly the same thing.”

At its essence, believes Levin, diversity and inclusion are foundational blocks of a world-class education. “One of the things I say to students is that part of the value of the campus is that education is fundamentally about encountering different ideas, cultures and people,” the dean adds. “When I think of the goals around diversity and inclusion, a lot of it is achieving that benefit of education, giving people exposure to different backgrounds, arguments, and perspectives. We spend a lot of time talking about how to actually get the benefits of those who have had different experiences and have different perspectives. How do you get them to share that with others and not be afraid to disagree in a civil and constructive way? We are living in a very polarized society right now. What we are trying to do is to get people to engage with different ideas and perspectives. That is the responsibility of the institution but that gets harder and harder in a country where that is not going on in general. It’s not the way people are engaged in social media and in politics. That makes it even more important in our neck of the woods. It is a fundamental challenge so we have to pay a lot of attention to that.”


No less important, Levin has backed the diversity initiative up with both talent and money. In admissions, Moss says more financial aid had to be channeled to support DEI efforts. “We’ve tried to take the position that students who want to come here can,” she says. “Jon did that before getting a single dollar from a donor.” Under Levin’s tenure, the GSB established the BOLD Fellows Fund, which awards up to $30,000 for a fellow’s two-year MBA program. In addition, Levin raised from an anonymous donor what Bolton calls “the largest gift for financial aid the school has ever raised.”

When he took the job, Levin held strong views about what he wanted to accomplish as dean. “There were some things I knew were going to be important and I knew I wanted to make sure I helped the school accomplish,” he says. “I wanted to see the faculty rise to a new level of excellence. I wanted the MBA program to be the destination of choice for highly talented young people.  I thought there was an opportunity to use technology to reach more people in education which we have been doing over the last six years. And I thought there were more opportunities for Stanford business school to engage more with the university.”

By all accounts, Levin has been able to hire some of the most talented young scholars on the market, bringing aboard 36 new faculty members. “He is an incredible recruiter of talent,” says Bolton. “Twenty-five of the last 28 offers were accepted, and we are going after the best people in the world. He is way ahead in knowing what faculty needs to do their best work.”

Yet, Levin concedes, he has found a central challenge he had not anticipated. “There were other things that I did not foresee,” he says. “One was how much the world was going to change in six years and how much business and the country would change. That has reformulated some of my thinking, just because the world has gone through such a period of transformation. To my mind, the biggest change that has happened to business in the last decade is the intersection of societal issues with business leadership: The questions that are now being raised about the future of capitalism and the purpose of business and what is the appropriate role of business leaders? These are hard questions. They are intellectually hard questions and they are practically hard questions. That just makes it a great time to be a business school. You are right in the middle of all that. You are in the middle of people arguing and thinking about those ideas and students wrestling with those things.”


For sure, Levin is no anti-capitalist. “If you look at the last 150 years of the United States,” he points out, “standards of living more or less doubled every generation. That is extraordinary. It is an incredibly powerful model. You realize there is just amazing power in having a vibrant private sector, competition, open markets and innovation. That is an important lesson for people to appreciate, not that there aren’t imperfections and unintentional consequences. There absolutely are. Part of the decline of trust in institutions has been the decline of trust in markets and the capitalist system.”

Still, it is that and other big issue debates that make him eager to get to campus. “What gets me excited about coming to work every day is seeing students and faculty wrestling with really big issues facing the world and getting excited about discussing them and debating them and trying to come up with solutions,” he adds. “Stanford is a very solutions-oriented place. People are problem solvers here. Even though we have faculty who do basic science research, people like solving problems around climate change, inequality, the direction and pace of technology, and the future of markets and institutions. We are focused on how we are going to come up with productive solutions that make people better off. That’s a great contribution that Stanford can make.”

In fact, Levin himself takes great pride in having those conversations. He typically walks to work from a home on the Stanford campus he shares with his wife, Amy, a physician, and their three children. During those strolls, he will often encounter other academics on their way to the office. “Just this morning,” he relates, “I was walking to campus and ran into one of my colleagues in our finance group. Something will happen in the world like the U.K. bond prices crash after an announcement by the finance minister. We started immediately talking about it. ‘What happened? Tell me about it? Do you think it’s going to recover?’ That part is great and I still get to do some of that. It is one of the great pleasures of being here.”

If he weren’t an academic, Levin says he could have easily decided to become a professional white water kayaker. “Being outdoors is a real passion of mine,” says the father of three.  “As my kids have gotten older, one of my great joys is doing things with them, whether it is kayaking or mountain climbing or skiing. It’s just the greatest thing ever, actually.”

What’s next? “The first priority is always the excellence of the faculty and the students,” he maintains. ” That is the foundation of everything. You never want to lose sight of that. It is the single most important priority at all times. And then being expansive in the way we think about the impact the school could have whether it is here at Stanford across the campus or in the broader world. Having excellence with a purpose is a great aspiration for the school. One of the attributes that I really appreciate about being at the GSB is how wide the span of disciplines is even in this building. We have people on the faculty who are psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and data scientists and they are in offices next door to each other which is really pretty neat and extraordinary. That is a great starting point because so many issues are cross-cutting in business today and in the world.” 














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