B-school Dean of the Year: UVA-Darden’s Robert Bruner

December 21, 2011, 8:05 PM UTC

UVA-Darden School of Business Dean Robert Bruner

(Poets&Quants) — A year ago, Robert Bruner found himself in a discomforting place — at the end of a wagging finger and a hard-hitting question.

The dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business was in Shanghai at a reception for potential applicants to the school’s prestigious MBA program when a young Chinese woman stood.

“Why don’t you admit more Chinese?” she asked sharply. The room fell to a hush, waiting for Bruner’s answer.

He pointed out that China already was the most highly represented nation among Darden’s international students. To admit far more students from a single country, he argued, would likely mean that Darden would offer less diversity in any given class and accept applicants who weren’t as qualified to attend its highly selective MBA program.

“Why would you go half way around the world to study with people exactly like you?” asked Bruner. “The point is to get out of your zone of comfort and stretch yourself against the very best talent in the world.”

The prospective applicant nodded and smiled. The point was made, and Bruner moved on to a softball question more typical in such settings.

But the question lingered in his mind because Bruner believes there are few agendas more important to the future of business education than how a school responds to globalization.

Is it by recruiting a more international student body and faculty? Teaching more case studies with global impact? Sending MBA candidates abroad for consulting assignments with foreign companies and multinationals? Investing in satellite campuses and research centers around the world? Or partnering with other business schools in far-flung corners of the globe?

To Bruner, these are not academic questions. Like many of his business school rivals, he is grappling with these issues as his school tries to prepare students for a truly global world. The difference may well be that he sees globalization as the new inflection point for management education and is hell bent on using it to get Darden to the next level.

For most of the world’s leading business schools, 2011 was a year of recovery. Though applications for full-time MBA programs were down, the quality of the applicant pool was among the best ever. And most members of the class of 2011 received more job offers from more companies than at anytime in the past four years.

So when PoetsandQuants sought to select its first Dean of the Year, there was no shortage of worthy candidates. At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Dean Garth Saloner opened the doors to a stunning $345 million campus that has transformed the school’s culture and way of teaching and reeled in an unprecedented $150 million gift to put the school at the forefront of social enterprise.

At Harvard Business School, Dean Nitin Nohria helped to lead the famous institution into a bold and ambitious MBA curriculum overhaul.

And at the Indian School of Business, Dean Ajit Rangnekar smartly guided the school through a crisis that led to the resignation of the institution’s founder and chairman — former McKinsey & Co. managing director Rajat Gupta — who was charged by the U.S. government for insider trading. Undaunted, Rangnekar secured accreditation for ISB, making it the first business school in South Asia to gain the imprimatur of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Putting globalization front and center

But it was understated Robert Bruner who rose to the top of the list. Why? As the chairman of a task force on the globalization of management, he brought clarity and focus to one of the most pressing issues that business schools face today. In a surprisingly sobering report, Bruner and his colleagues took schools to task for their “fragmented and disjoined” globalization efforts.

Bruner decried what he called a “sizable gap between what the world needs and what management educators do.”

His leadership on the issue came naturally because, over the course of more than six years as dean of Darden, Bruner has shaken the institution out of a malaise that had threatened its stature as one of the world’s finest business schools. After several years of decline in applications to its flagship MBA program, Bruner has dramatically rebuilt the school’s applicant pool so that there are now eight applicants for each available seat.

See also: Top 10 MBA programs in the U.S.

Bruner brought in top faculty members, having recruited more than one in four of the school’s 70-member faculty. And in the worst economic environment in memory, he has raised $100 million toward a $150 million fundraising goal. Unsurprisingly, Darden has inched higher in business school rankings, even achieving the highly coveted rank of first place in BusinessWeek’s most recent student satisfaction poll.

Looks are deceiving

With his oval tortoise shell glasses, dark conservative suits, and formal manner, Bob Bruner could easily be mistaken for a 1950s’ Organization Man. Plop a fedora on his head and you could imagine him waiting on a suburban platform for a commuter train into Chicago or New York. Bruner’s unadventurous appearance, however, belies his nonconforming character and leadership style.

Among business school deans, he is one of the leading social media mavens, a prolific and astute blogger and tweeter. He began regularly blogging in July 2006 with a trenchant post on the role of business schools in society and hasn’t stopped since, tackling every subject, no matter how controversial or provocative, from the value of an MBA to his views on business school rankings.

An avid outdoorsman who has paddled 301 miles of the James River in Virginia and is often seen biking the hilly countryside roads around Charlottesville, he’s also an opera lover (his favorite is Mozart’s Don Giovanni). Bruner devours between 30 and 50 books a year (the tome that has had the greatest influence on him is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he first read at the age of 11.)

A master teacher

Before he was drafted as interim dean in 2005, he was known as a master in the classroom, one of the best finance case study teachers in the world. “He is the teachers’ teacher,” says Peter Tufano, dean of the University of Oxford’s Said School of Business, who has known Bruner as a fellow finance professor at both Harvard Business School and Darden. “Beyond being a master of his subject, Bob cares deeply about learning and his students.”

He fell in love with teaching shortly after walking to the front of a Northeastern University classroom for the first time in the early 1980s, where he taught introductory finance to part-time undergraduates. At the time, Bruner had returned to Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA in 1974, to study for a doctorate in finance.

“I remember it was hot, the windows had to be open,” he says. “The trolleys on Huntington Avenue were rolling back and forth. I remember it fondly. What I gained was an appreciation for the sheer drive that some of the students had to make something of themselves. They were clerks in companies. They didn’t have the money to go to a full-time program. They were literally bootstrapping their way up in life and they were really eager to learn.”

For those students, Bruner made it real, borrowing experiences he had as a loan officer and investment analyst for First Chicago Corp. from1974 until 1977. And most importantly, he brought to the class a generous heart, passion, intellectual curiosity, and a servant’s mindset.

As Bruner puts it, “Nothing energizes me more than to see the light bulb go off in a student’s eyes after wrestling with some kind of problem. I don’t think you can be a great teacher if that doesn’t excite you. You may be an adequate teacher. But you have to be drawn by that zest for discovery because all great work of any kind starts from the heart.”

After earning his doctorate in 1982, Bruner set off for Darden. “Bob is arguably the best case teacher who has ever taught at Darden,” believes Trip Davis, a former MBA student of Bruner’s who is now president of the Darden School Foundation. “There is a remarkable clarity with which you end a Bruner class…. You go through this 80-minute process of competing ideas and outcomes and this maestro professor brings it together in the last three to 10 minutes.”

Taking the reins at Darden

Bruner was a visiting scholar at Columbia University when he received a phone call from the president of the University of Virginia in 2005 asking him to return as interim dean. The school was in the midst of a troubled transition. A dean search failed to turn up any viable candidates partly because of governance issues between the school and the trustees of the Darden Foundation, which manages the school’s endowment, operates its executive education offerings, and promotes philanthropic support by alumni and corporations.

Things were going south. “We had experienced a decline in applications over several years,” recalls Bruner. “We had students who were less than satisfied with the recruiting environment generally. Some faculty had left. Some alumni were unhappy about the school, principally because our rankings were ebbing.”

By then, Bruner had authored or co-authored some 20 books, including the 1,056-page door stopper Applied Mergers and Acquisitions, along with more than 250 case studies. Yet another book or a dozen more case studies seemed like less of a challenge to him than what he viewed as a “great no-fault opportunity to see what being a dean would be like. I said ‘yes’ out of many sentiments, not least of which was my concern for the school that I had worked at for 23 years. So I kind of fell into the job.”

Bruner dove into the job headfirst. Within six months, he was asked to take on the deanship for a regular term. He painstakingly resolved the friction between the school and the foundation’s trustees by shepherding a memo of understanding through more than two-dozen revisions. He engaged several teams of faculty and staff around a series of initiatives to turn the school around. He plowed considerably more money into scholarships to attract top students. He beefed up the school’s faculty expertise in strategy, technology, operations, and ethics, recruiting many outstanding professors including Raul Chao in operations and Yael Grushka-Cockayne in decision analysis.

A veritable globetrotter

When he is not on campus, attending a “First Coffee” event with students and staff every morning in Saunders Hall, he is on the road as a tireless proselytizer for the school. Bruner travels 150 days a year to meet with alumni, donors, and recruiting partners.

Shortly after becoming dean, Bruner made one of his annual trips to Asia, meeting with 40 different companies in Korea and China. The result of his measured salesmanship: Three-quarters of the companies have since come to Charlottesville to interview Darden students for internships and jobs, while at least half have hired the school’s MBAs, including Samsung, which alone made nine offers to the class of 2012, says Jack Oates, director of career development.

Colleagues describe him as a leader who sets a high bar and can be remarkably firm. Bruner’s marching orders to Peter Rodriguez, a senior associate dean who is working on the globalization efforts at the school: “I want you to wake up each day and worry about how global the school isn’t and needs to be.” Adds the professor, “I do.”

Today, at least half the MBA students are going abroad on multi-week excursions to study other business cultures. The case studies in the core curriculum that are substantially non-domestic have risen to nearly 30% of the total from a “mere rounding number” in 2005, says Rodriguez. “It was completely inadequate,” he adds.

The school is inviting more international speakers to campus to lecture and more companies to recruit for positions with international tracks. A new technology and design course includes an applied field project requiring students to go to Israel to work with startups for several weeks. Darden expects to replicate this course-and-project model to add more international exposure to the curriculum.

What’s in the offing?

Bruner is not making the case that Darden has arrived. In fact, only 27% of the school’s full-time MBAs are from outside the U.S., less than Harvard’s 34% or Stanford’s 32%. But he’s in the midst of a major effort to significantly increase the percentage of international students at Darden.

“I am not satisfied with our percentage of international students, and we are working quite hard this year on a series of initiatives aiming to draw a wider pool of applicants,” he says. “We’re also reflecting very deeply on the kind of curriculum we need to offer that is right for international students.”

That should be good news to the woman in Shanghai who wagged her finger at the dean.

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