Who Will Keep Business Schools in Business?

Business schools are fielding increasing numbers of questions from employers about how—and whether—a graduate with a business degree will impact their companies’ bottom lines. But what will determine success for business schools?

Predicting the future for business schools is like consulting the oracle. Some predictions are clear: Business schools face flat or declining interest in full-time graduate business programs, an MBA-saturated workforce, and a growing availability of online business degrees. They’re fielding increasing numbers of questions from employers about how—and whether—a graduate with a business degree will impact their companies’ bottom lines. But what will determine success for business schools? In that regard, the future is still uncertain.

To gain more clarity, my colleagues at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm based in Oakbrook, Illinois, and I recently talked with a number of business deans. We asked them what kinds of leaders they believed business schools will need in the next few years. The most successful business school deans, they told us, will have four primary skill sets, which they can draw from to help their business schools thrive in a dynamic environment:

The ability to think broadly, boldly, and innovatively. While some deans are responding to changing demand for business degrees by developing specialized and accelerated degree programs, many are not changing the fundamental way they deliver business education. But business school advisory boards and university leadership teams are looking for leaders who can think boldly and innovatively. Search committees are using criteria like “flexible,” “entrepreneurial,” and “cutting edge.”

Search committees also are telling us that the value proposition for status quo leadership is harder to support in a rapidly changing landscape. Georgette Phillips, dean of the Lehigh University College of Business and Economics in Pennsylvania, believes that business school deans must be able to stick their heads above the crowd to set a new course for business education. “Faculty are notorious for studying everything that leads to the present, while they are terrible about thinking ahead to the future,” she says. “That is where business schools need to be, side by side with businesses figuring out what is coming next and what is needed.”

The ability to run cross-disciplinary institutions. Curricular change and flexibility require faculty to shed their disciplinary loyalties and think more creatively. Stephen Spinelli Jr., president of Philadelphia University in Pennsylvania, thinks that while most MBAs are adequate, too many are “vanilla”—they possess a general skill set, but they aren’t as able to think creatively. They are the product of business schools where “decision making across disciplinary boundaries is not emphasized,” says Spinelli. “Most business schools do not have the expertise to even address transdisciplinary leadership.” He adds that a contemporary dean needs to have “strategic intensity and a bias toward action” coupled with the ability to build relationships inside and outside of the business school.

"Curricular change and flexibility require faculty to shed their disciplinary loyalties and think more creatively."

Venky Venkatachalam, dean of the University of South Dakota’s Beacom School of Business in Vermillion, emphasized the importance of managerial skills, including motivating people, managing projects, and collaborating with entities outside the business school. He says that it’s essential for deans “to collaborate with other schools, such as engineering and law, to develop strong interdisciplinary programs.”

The ability to be a manager and an academic. Sylvia Maxfield, dean at Providence College School of Business in Rhode Island, told us that the ideal dean has a background in both academia and business. She herself started life as an academic but left for five years to serve as senior sovereign analyst and vice president at Lehman Brothers. “Experience outside academia is critical in a b-school,” she says. “It brings credibility with donors and students. At the same time, a pure outsider may face a greater challenge on the faculty engagement front. We have in our ranks of b-school faculty many who have significant corporate experience.” Those faculty also might just be ideal candidates to take on a dean’s responsibilities.

The ability to be an entrepreneur. David Blackwell, dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, points out that many deans are both academic and “quite entrepreneurial.” But he adds that it is not necessarily a dean’s lack of skill or creative thinking that constrains his or her actions. Rather, it’s that the rules and resource limitations that govern academia often prevent schools from being more innovative. Lynne Richardson, dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, agrees: “We do have to change our model and approach, but it will require taking off the chains and removing the rules.”

If business education is to adapt, be more forward thinking, and be more aligned with what the business community demands, deans and faculties must have the freedom to be truly innovative and inventive in everything from pedagogy to credentialing.

Another trend we are seeing at Witt/Kieffer—one related to all four skills mentioned above—is that more business school search committees are asking us to include individuals from nontraditional backgrounds in the pool of candidates. Nontraditional can be code for corporate, but it also extends to any candidates who have spent most of their careers outside higher education. According to a recent global survey from AACSB International, 4.8 percent of its member schools that responded have deans whose prior positions fell outside academia. On our data at Witt/Kieffer is comparable: At least 25 of 500 U.S.-based AACSB schools currently have deans who came to their positions directly from corporate, government, consulting, or other nonacademic experience.

"More business school search committees are asking us to include individuals from nontraditional backgrounds in the pool of candidates."

Of these 25, some were former CEOs and entrepreneurs; a few hailed from high-profile consultancies; others even spent stints as professors before ascending to dean. Cathy Minehan at the Simmons College School of Management in Boston, Massachusetts, had a career with the Federal Reserve. Boston University’s Kenneth Freeman worked in private equity for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and before that as CEO of Quest Diagnostics. Other examples include Ed Grier, former COO of Disneyland, now dean at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; and Neil Braun, former NBC TV president, Viacom CEO, and film executive, now dean at Pace University.

Despite the perspectives that deans with nonacademic backgrounds might bring to a business school, a school’s success under nontraditional candidates is not a given. Richard Lapidus, president of Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, notes that the biggest problems arise when change-averse academic faculty resist strategies suggested by a former executive who has become their dean. These deans are “more prone to putting together unilateral plans and implementing rather than working through faculty governance,” says Lapidus.

While business schools are not yet frequently selecting nonacademics as their deans, they are in almost all instances asking recruiters to provide nontraditional candidates because they believe that corporate executives have skills that many academics lack. These skills include the ability to innovate, manage organizational change, and adapt to rapidly changing demands of the marketplace. It quickly is becoming the norm rather than the exception for business school deans to possess the skills traditionally found among corporate leaders.

One thing is certain: Demand outstrips the supply of highly qualified business school leaders who know how to perceive the future, inspire creativity, and manage change. Who will keep business schools in business? Phillips says enthusiastically that “the students will, of course!” But if students are to keep coming to business school, business education will need to reflect the skills that employers are looking for. And that means that business schools will need leaders who can recognize—and respond to—the changes that undoubtedly lie ahead.

Lucy Leske is managing partner of the education practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer in Oakbrook, Illinois.