We’ve been in this industry long enough that we’re able to identify and (try to) analyze some longer-term trends. One interesting cycle involves leadership of top business schools and who is appointed as dean. (Warning: Long post ahead! And who the dean is, well, that might not matter altogether much for you as a current or near-term future MBA student. Read on if you’re curious but this post may not offer too much practical utility for actually constructing an MBA application strategy.)
You would think that naming a new dean at a school would be a wholly independent and internal event, not tied to or associated with any other factors or circumstances in the outward environment. In other words, you would think that a business school, when their current dean announces his retirement (and it’s almost always a “his”), would go about finding a replacement as an activity they manage unto themselves. From the outside, that’s what it appears that they do:
1. School issues announcement that Dean X is retiring and will finish out the current academic year, and then step down on June 30th next year.
2. A few weeks later, school announces that a search team has been formed to find Dean X’s replacement.
3. Everything goes dark on the process and you hear nothing as months and months go by.
4. Maybe two or three months before Dean X is supposed to leave, Dean Y is announced as his successor (or, sometimes, an interim dean is named if the school hasn’t been able to find the right permanent candidate, and then six months-ish later, we hear who the next actual dean will be).
That’s typically not how it goes with any corporate leadership change. If a CEO is retiring from a major company (or being fired) then usually the board of that company figures out who will replace him (again, usually a “him”) and they issue a single press release that announces the departure and his successor, all at once. There would still be a similar process going on behind the scenes, where a committee is working with a high-end executive search firm (aka headhunter) to find the replacement if they’re going outside, or they’re figuring out who to promote from within, which seems to happen more regularly in the corporate world than it does in academia. We can only recall one time in recent memory that a school opted to promote from within, and that was Ross when they brought Dean Scott DeRue into the head office (more on him later).
So why the difference in process? Why do bschools make a big deal about the departing dean long before he’s gone and before they have a replacement?
One reason is to signal to the market that there’s an opening.
Corporations don’t do this because shareholders get spooked by instability, and the company’s stock would tank if they announced that they were having turnover in leadership without knowing who would be driving the ship. Also, non-competes are very common in big businesses, where a high-level exec of Google is prohibited by contract from going to work at Facebook, even though it still happens frequently enough, though it also can result in lawsuits about theft of intellectual property and trade secrets . Academia has traditionally been much more incestuous; it is rare indeed that any university would hire a non-academic for any leadership role in any of its schools or colleges. The one exception that stands out in the recent past is UVA who brought in former McKinsey exec Scott Beardsley to run Darden after beloved dean Bob Bruner stepped down from the post. (Beardsley was just this week reappointed to a second term at Darden.)
Anyway, enough backstory. We’re here to talk about trends.
And this is what we’ve observed. For whatever esoteric chaos-theory reason that would be better studied by philosophers or behavioral economists, top bschools tend to experience turnover in waves. We have been doing this long enough that we’ve observed the pattern: Clusters of bschools go through leadership transitions at once. It’s not always the same bschools who have a change in deanship together; different schools apparently have different term lengths for their appointments, and certainly some schools’ deans stay for longer and get their appointments renewed. All of this happens at irregular intervals; these are not lock-step patterns or trends.
But there will be clusters, where one school, and then another, and then at least a third if not more schools announce that their dean is stepping down and they are to bring in new leadership in the same year or two. And then all quiets down for at least two or three years with no movement at the top of any school, before another wave starts to hit. When there are changes, those changes come in groups, where more than one school is going through it simultaneously.
Here’s what a last wave looked like in 2015 and 2016:
Dr. Matthew Slaughter
Dr. Scott Beardsley
Dr. Geoffrey Garrett
Dr. Jonathan Levin
Dr. Scott DeRue
And here’s what our current wave looks like so far in 2019:
Dr. Ann Harrison
Dr. Francesca Cornelli
Dr. Kerwin Charles
As we’ve laid out, finding a successor to a departing dean is a very secretive process on campus and everyone is totally hush-hush about it until they’ve secured their new person, and you would think that it would be an entirely internal task where the school board selects the best candidate for them looking at their own priorities for where they want their school to go, and not impacted or influenced by anything in the outside world.
But clearly, the world has had its influence.
If anyone believes that #MeToo has not had an impact, they are mistaken. And #BLM. And all the other social upheavals and long-overdue changes that society is trying to finally accommodate.
Drs. Harrison and Charles are succeeding white men; Dr. Cornelli is succeeded a white woman, Sally Blount, who had become the last female dean of a major school after the only other female dean, Judy Olian at UCLA, had announced her retirement in early 2018 (Dr. Olian is now President of Quinnipaic University; Dr. Blount has returned to a faculty role at Northwestern and will continue to teach there).
In between, we had NYU Stern’s popular dean Peter Henry — a Black American, born in Jamaica — step down, and Dr. Raghu Sundaram — an Indian American, born in Madras — be appointed from within to take his place. There’s actually been quite a few Indians leading top bschools, however, including current Booth Dean Madhav Rajan, former Booth Dean Sunil Kumar, Cornell Johnson’s former Dean Soumitra Dutta, and current HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. Indians are minorities in the U.S. however they’ve been represented quite well on the business school circuit (at least, men of Indian heritage have been).
So who’s next?
Well, UCLA still doesn’t have a permanent dean. After Judy Olian left, they named an African-American, Dr. Al Osborn, as interim. After having a woman, and now a minority as interim dean, the pressure is on at Anderson to not hire another white man.
And the other big one we’re waiting on is Columbia, who is saying goodbye to Glenn Hubbard this summer. Unfortunately, given Columbia’s track record and generally conservative or even staid approach to change, we kind of expect them to replace like for like. Not exactly expecting to see them hire, say, a Hispanic woman for the top slot.
Duke Fuqua’s Bill Boulding has also been there quite awhile; we have no knowledge that he’s planning on stepping down anytime soon, nor have we heard that Harvard’s Dean Nohria will be doing so, but both of those gentlemen have been in their respective positions for quite a long time. Maybe one or both schools will end up being part of this latest wave too? UPDATE 11/6/19: DEAN NOHRIA HAS ANNOUNCED THAT HE IS STEPPING DOWN FROM HIS ROLE LEADING HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL AT THE END OF THE ACADEMIC YEAR (apparently we called that one!)
As we’ve said, whoever is in the dean’s chair at your school doesn’t really matter to you as a student. However, seeing the world change and be more open and flexible and representative is a good thing for all of us — and we will be watching who else these other schools choose to lead them into the next era.
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