It was during the Christmas break of 2021 that Scott Beardsley began reading Rossum’s Universal Robots. The script for the cautionary drama written in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Čapek stirred the curiosity of the dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The three-act play centers on a scientist named Rossum who creates a factory to make humanlike robots.
“It’s decided that they aren’t human enough, so they begin to add more human traits,” says Beardsley, who politely declines to be the spoiler of the play’s outcome. In fact, what happens is the robots, created to serve humans, have come to dominate them completely.
Fast forward to today when Chat-GPT is a harbinger of the future power of artificial intelligence, a technology that can eliminate much of the mundane work by humans but also has the potential, like Rossum’s robots, to be deployed in a way that could have a disastrous impact on humans and society.
‘I’VE CHOSEN TO BE A STUDENT AGAIN’
With all kinds of technological advances such as cloning, gene editing, brain chips, and generative AI within reach, Beardsley made the decision to become a student again. He is taking a six-month sabbatical to study the ethics of emerging technologies at Oxford University. From July 1 to Jan. 1 of 2024, Beardsley will temporarily leave the deanship he has had at Darden for the past eight years and attend graduate courses in practical ethics, immersing himself in a vast amount of reading and writing.
“I will be there to learn,” he says flatly from his office on the second floor of Saunders Hall at Darden. “I got my doctorate in education when I was 50. I’ve chosen to be a student again. You are never too old to learn. This is about having the mind space that is not distracted by all the myriad things you do as a dean.”
While the 59-year-old Beardsley began thinking about the possibility of doing a sabbatical after reading the play, his decision to take six months off a grueling job was influenced by several other factors. When he was at McKinsey & Co. for nearly 27 years, ending as a senior partner and board member, he had the chance to take a sabbatical and turned it down, a regret to this day. No less important, a thoughtful conversation with University Provost Ian B. Baucom helped Beardsley move forward on the idea. When Baucom was Dean of Arts and Sciences, he took a sabbatical to write a book and spoke favorably about the experience.
In Baucom’s email to faculty and staff announcing the “award” of the sabbatical, he prominently mentioned his own break. “Based on my experience taking a sabbatical while I was dean of Arts & Sciences, I believe that Scott’s time away will enable him to build on his impressive accomplishments and increase his capacity for service to the university as a leader, teacher, and scholar,” wrote Baucom.
BEARDSLEY HAS FORMALLY STUDIED ENGINEERING, MANAGEMENT & EDUCATION BUT NEVER PHILOSOPHY
During Beardsley’s McKinsey years, he had become interested in the regulation of emerging technologies. And through the years, it has been an intellectual curiosity given more immediate attention by Chat-GPT. He notes that a Darden MBA student recently used an AI platform to create an admissions presentation by Dawna Clarke, the school’s MBA admissions chief. “She watched herself give a speech she never gave,” marvels Beardsley. “And this is just the early days.”
Besides, notes the dean, he has never had the opportunity to study philosophy and ethics. Beardsley earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Tufts University in 1985, his MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1989, and 27 years later in 2016, his doctor of education from the University of Pennsylvania, a degree he leveraged to transition into the deanship from a long career in consulting. Now he will pursue graduate research and coursework at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, the most highly admired school of ethics in the world.
Beardsley believed it was an opportune time to take six months off to return to school. Just weeks ago, Beardsley opened the $130 million gathering space on campus, reached the first $400 million milestone of a major fundraising campaign, and established a growing presence for Darden in the Washington, D.C., area with a new satellite campus and the launch of Darden’s first part-time MBA program and a master’s in business analytics with the university’s McIntire School of Commerce. After teaching six courses this past academic year, he had been scheduled to teach just one in the next semester. Beardsley is already committed to teaching a total of five courses when he returns for the spring semester of 2024.
LONG-TIME DARDEN PROFESSOR JEANNE LIEDTKA WILL SERVE AS INTERIM DEAN
It also helped that Jeanne Liedtka, a long-time Darden professor of some 33 years on corporate strategy, innovation, and design thinking, will serve as interim dean in his absence. “Jeanne is closely aligned with me. She led by reappointment and has the respect of everyone here. It just all came together at the end,” he says. Beardsley will maintain his residence at Pavilion I on Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village and says he will continue to do some fundraising and oversee the plan to build a new residential facility for MBA students.
With a very apparent twinkle in his eyes, Beardsley notes that he has been admitted to Oxford’s historic Pembroke College, where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, his favorite book. At one moment, he reaches into his trousers to fetch his wallet and proudly shows his newly-issued Oxford student ID card.
“At some point, I would probably have done this anyway,” he says. “It’s all about lifelong learning and the difficult ethical dimensions our society faces by technology, both the dystopian side and the positive. There will be a lot of difficult challenges facing leaders on the ethics of using new technology. These technologies are at an inflection point. I want to help people be productive and happy in a world with technology options rising at exponential rates. I want to come back and help us develop new ideas and new courses to deal with these issues.”
DON’T MISS: MEET UVA DARDEN’S MBA CLASS OF 2024 or DEAN OF THE YEAR IN 2020
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