Three top schools had/will have a changing of the guard in the corner office this year:
- Wharton’s Dean Robertson stepped aside and Geoffrey Garrett took over last July
- Darden’s Bob Bruner will be handing the reins to Scott Beardsley in August
- Tuck’s longest-tenured dean Paul Damos will be turning things over to Matthew Slaughter in July
Does any of this matter to you, an intrepid wanna-be MBA student?
Yes and no.
“No” in the sense that nobody should be choosing their business school based on who’s running the place. There are many many other valid criteria to be using in selecting your school.
“Yes” in that the person running the place is going to have a dramatic effect on many aspects of your two years attending that school – whether it’s immediately obvious or not.
The best analogy that we can come up with for the role of an elite bschool dean from the student’s perspective is the experience of going to a fancy hotel.
Have you ever been to like a Four Seasons or a Ritz Carlton? Or an Oberoi, or a Taj, depending on where you are in the world? It’s the General Manager of the hotel who’s responsible for your experience there. A good GM sweats the details on everything. Not only does the GM handle the financials of the hotel but they pay attention to all that adds up to your perception of being on property – the vibe or “mood” of the hotel, the amenities offered, how guests are greeted. It’s many many things that in a well-run hotel are actually invisible to the guest.
That’s how it works with a good dean.
A good dean knows what his (or her) school is – and what it can become. A good dean puts systems and processes in place to ensure that the school reaches its potential. A good dean has a blend of the tactical and the day-to-day combined with the vision for the future that is unique to the school – and he (or she) communicates that vision and empowers everyone else to strive for it.
Deans have many constituents that they need to please – and you may be surprised to discover that students are not often the most important on the list. Deans need to keep their faculty happy. They need to keep their big-ticket donors happy. They need to keep the overall school administration happy. They need to make a positive first impression on those applicants who are interested in attending. All of this means that deans have to answer to many – and education is not always their primary focus. Marketing, branding, prestige – and yes, rankings – these things matter just as much. Bschools are political institutions, after all.
The deans taking over at these three schools have wildly varying backgrounds. Tuck’s selection of an internal candidate makes complete sense for that school. The Tuck culture is unique and we can see how it could be more difficult for an outsider to come in and be successful there. We’ve never interacted with Dean Slaughter (or any of these deans) however on paper he looks like a very good choice.
Ditto for Darden: Dean Beardsley is impressive for sure and we believe that Darden scored a major win with him.
What about Wharton? Well not to be snarky or anything but the jury is still out on Dean Garrett. We just don’t know what he stands for or what his agenda will be – and he’s been around long enough to have some of those priorities made public.
Whenever someone takes over a high-profile role they need to be careful on navigating the institution – they don’t want to be announcing big changes just for big-changes’ sake. Yet the arrival of a new dean is a huge opportunity for the school to do SOMETHING.
What we’re seeing out of Wharton is that this new dean seems to be more a figurehead. He’s very good at PR and makes lots of appearances. That’s great – one role of the dean is to be the face of the school – but we also would expect to see some substance. Wharton is a school that has been just sort of hanging out in the bschool ecosystem for the past few years. Like Kellogg, this is a school that can ride its reputation for like forever… but it’s not showing itself to be nimble and quick. We’re not seeing anything but the same as ever before. It’s early days still, sure… but when other deans took over at big bschools we were more impressed with the fresh energy that they brought in. It was obvious what their priorities were. To not get even a preliminary announcement of strategy and focus after six months on board at Wharton just makes us wonder where that ship is headed.
Mostly what’s important, in our opinion, about this whole dean ascension thing is that it gives you a glimpse of what’s REALLY going on at the school. Selection of a new dean is an incredibly political process. Seeing who the school chooses gives you insight into what the ADMINISTRATION is doing and what they value, and how they see their own school and the overall business education landscape – something you only rarely get to glimpse. Looking at who they choose can help you understand a little bit of the long-term game that the school is trying to play.
For Tuck, our takeaway opinion of the selection of Dean Slaughter is that Tuck is very self-confident. Dean Damos has done a great job there for many years, and Tuck is telling us that their current direction is sound. While we expect to see changes coming with Dean Slaughter we’d be surprised if they were anything too radical. It’s more of a keep-going type strategy, which to us, as complete outsiders, makes sense.
The Darden announcement of a McKinsey alum taking over was also received well in Snarkville and we believe that (along with Yale) Darden may now be one to watch. Those are the two schools that are highest on our radar in terms of being agile and flexible and willing to change. We have equal respect for Dean Bruner as we do for Dean Damos and it’s not like Darden needs to be shaken up – UVA has had a tough year or so but the bschool is on decent footing. Still, we can see that they’re hungry, based on who they landed for this appointment. So we’re very interested to see where Dean Beardsley takes things.
Will a new dean impact your experience in attending a bschool this fall? No. Highly unlikely. Except for some pomp and circumstance when they officially arrive on campus, but most of you won’t be physically at school when that happens. The changes, if any, that these individuals may be lining up will more directly have an impact on future cohorts.
We are very excited to see what all these deans bring forth at their respective schools. Watching a leader implement change on a large scale can be interesting. We’ve got plenty of popcorn at the ready.