How BU’s B-school plans to take on Harvard and MIT

June 22, 2012, 2:20 PM UTC

Boston University’s Kenneth Freeman

(Poets&Quants) — Soon after Kenneth Freeman arrived as the new dean of Boston University’s School of Management two years ago, he began talking about a rather audacious goal: To ultimately convince people that there are really three elite business schools in Boston.

Is it a mere pipedream to think that BU could spring to mind with such world-class players as the Harvard Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management?

After all, an impartial observer wouldn’t even call this a David vs. Goliath match. The school significantly trails its rivals in every MBA ranking. Its endowment is under $100 million, little more than 3% of Harvard’s $2.8 billion. Less than one in 10 alumni donate money to the school in any given year, about a third of the total at either MIT or Harvard.

Matching (literally) the school’s future to the economy’s future

Freeman, however, doesn’t think his goal is unreachable. In fact, to realize his dream, the former chief executive of Quest Diagnostics Inc. (DGX) is betting the future of the school on the future.

The school has identified the three sectors of the economy where it believes, in his words, “there will be more job creation, more financial market creation, and more value creation for societies, communities, and countries over the next five, 10, and 20 years.” Those include health care and life sciences, digital technology, and alternative energy and sustainability. With faculty approval, Freeman is now aligning the school’s professors, research, and curriculum around those economic growth areas.

In academia, where loyalty is to a discipline rather than an industry or economic sector, Freeman, 62, is attempting a revolutionary change. Whether the Harvard MBA can pull it off is anyone’s guess, but the odds are certainly not in his favor.

The single biggest challenge, of course, will be to convince faculty to focus on the three sectors when they have already hitched their careers to disciplines such as accounting, finance, marketing, or strategy. Concedes N. “Venkat” Venkatraman, a long-time management professor at the school, “Faculty members aren’t drawn to the sectors as easily as employers and students. But I don’t think that we can distinguish the school by only writing in academic journals.”

To make those sectors an integral part of Boston’s culture and approach, Freeman plans to recruit new faculty, create academic centers in each field, launch global case competitions in each area, and infuse much of the coursework with case studies and experiential projects in each of the three industries. “We’re recruiting for specific disciplines but we are also doing it with a twist by focusing on specialization in digital technology, the health sector, or energy,” he says. “For us to be distinguished, we have to have cutting-edge research in these fields.”

For incoming students, the focus on those three areas begins immediately. “When students arrive, we provide them with a brief overview of those sectors and then they move through the traditional management discipline training,” adds Freeman. “We are transforming case content to reflect these sectors much more so than the traditional sectors of the past. And the classroom discussions will be supplemented by lectures from today’s executives in these fields.”

He then expects graduates, 40% of which now enter finance and consulting, to stream into those high-growth fields. “There might be some heavy lifting here, but this is where the jobs are going,” insists Freeman.

Not your Ivory Tower B-school dean

The wonder of it all is that this relative newcomer to the deanship is not an academic visionary but rather a pragmatic and hard-nosed executive. Freeman had worked at Corning Inc. since 1972, rising through the finance ranks until the company asked him to take the top leadership role of its Quest Diagnostics unit in 1995. He led the spin-off of the business in 1997, increasing its market value from $350 million to $9 billion-plus when he left as CEO in 2004. Freeman then moved on to buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) where he helped to oversee the firm’s private equity investments.

After Dean Louis Lataif, a former high-ranking Ford Motor (F) executive, announced plans to retire in late 2009, a search committee approached Freeman to see if he would be interested in applying for the job. While at KKR, he had been an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School, which led to invitations to teach “transformational leadership” in BU’s core course on organizational behavior for three years in a row. “I guess I got a passing grade because I was invited back,” he laughs.

Though some faculty believed it was time to have a pure academic in the job, three professors put Freeman’s name up for the spot. “I had been thinking about higher education for a while,” he says. “I’m a first-generation college grad and this is opportunity to impact the next generation of leaders.”

His successor had made significant progress during a 19-year stint as dean. During Lataif’s tenure, the business school significantly increased the quality of its students and gained greater recognition in various rankings. The year before his arrival, the school was not even ranked by BusinessWeek. Its full-time MBA program is now ranked at 38, while its undergraduate business degree is No. 18.

Rustling BU out of its sleepy past

Freeman assumed the deanship on Aug. 1, 2010. “Walking in the door, I knew this was a school that had risen nicely under Dean Lataif,” says Freeman. “But I think the school was waiting for what do we do next. It had not become complacent, but it wasn’t as energized a place as I might have anticipated.”

Freeman also made another quick discovery. “I also found that, not unlike a lot of schools, alumni engagement was very limited,” he says. “We have 45,000 living alumni of this school, which will be 100 years old in 2013. Yet, no one knew that we would have our 100th birthday only two years after I got here. No one knew it — not the alumni or the faculty. There was a thin veneer of very loyal donors — maybe 100 to 150 — and then the rest was like that cheap fiberboard in IKEA furniture. That was a surprise.”

But the greatest opportunity, realized Freeman, was to change the school’s strategy. “I was warned when I got here that the curriculum was obsolete,” he says. “It was 10 years old at the graduate level and 15 years old at undergraduate level.” So he got the school’s faculty to plunge into a redesign that was approved this spring.

Initially, in early 2012, he gained faculty approval for the changes to Boston’s 2,000-student undergraduate business program. And in the spring, Freeman asked for changes to the 1,200-student graduate program. “Given that we had a dean change after 19 years, it was relatively easy,” says Venkatraman. “People felt the time was right to go through change in the curriculum.”

There was virtually no opposition. “We had one negative vote in undergrad and four negative votes for the MBA,” says Freeman. “Our faculty owns this change.”

Clearly, that’s the only way it will stick and work. But it’s one thing to proclaim a new direction and quite another to successfully execute on the new vision. The changes will be completed by fall 2013.

“This was a commuter school 30 years ago,” reflects Freeman. “We are going through a transformation now and we are playing hardball. We have to catch up on the endowment, but there is a scrappiness, desire, and willingness to change and work together. We are going to have to be the old Avis that tries harder. But when you think of Boston in the future, I want you to think there are three elite business schools here.”

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