Today’s Deans: Executives or Entrepreneurs?

I recently met with an entrepreneur who believes all businesspeople can be divided into two groups: entrepreneurs and executives.

Today’s Deans: Executives or Entrepreneurs?

He contends that only the rare individual is able to switch back and forth between roles. His theory fits well with management research that indicates entrepreneurs typically launch new businesses, while executives take over only after those companies have become successful.

However, I’m uncomfortable when I consider what this model suggests for business school deans. Most of our institutions have been around for a long time. Does that make all of us executives, more like CEOs than entrepreneurs?

My take is that business school deans have, for the most part, been executives. Many schools have a hall of deans’ portraits, mostly featuring white men in conservative suits. At any university-wide deans meeting, the business school dean is the one most likely to be a silver-haired individual in business attire. We’re a very executive-like group.

But all of us might need to develop a more entrepreneurial spirit as we deal with some of the change and uncertainty facing us today. Higher education in general is coping with many challenges: reduced revenue from traditional sources, public skepticism about the value of higher education, and new competitors offering substitute educational products.

I’m convinced that, to navigate our changing environment, we have to take risks and get out in front of the changes facing us. To provide the type of training today’s workers want, we might need to reinvent ourselves. We might have to become entrepreneurs.


I see five areas where business school deans need to show entrepreneurial spirit:

1. Revamping the MBA. Traditional two-year MBA programs are losing popularity in favor of part-time and evening programs; at the same time, more candidates signing up for the GMAT are younger and have less business experience. Maybe the full-time MBA should undergo a major overhaul. Perhaps it should even return to its roots and revert to being primarily a degree for those with non-business undergraduate degrees and no work experience.

2. Integrating analytics into the curriculum. We’re all aware of how Big Data is changing business, but we’ve been slow to change our courses to reflect its importance. Even a field like marketing—which used to be a major for people who didn’t like numbers—has become reliant on data. If you visit most senior marketing executives today, you’ll find that the computer monitors on their desks are open to spreadsheets, not slogans.

3. Embracing online education. While many business schools now offer online or hybrid programs, most of the first efforts were led by schools that weren’t at the top of the rankings. At a time when “distance learning” was almost synonymous with “low quality,” the AACSB-accredited schools that were early purveyors of online MBAs were the entrepreneurs: schools like the University of Florida, Indiana University, Penn State University, the University of Maryland, and my own school, Arizona State University. Administrators need to understand that online education can offer exceptional quality—and that more of our potential students will demand it. And then these administrators need to pioneer such programs at their institutions.

4. Exploring new models of education. One of the hottest trends in education right now is the massively open online course, or MOOC. When Columbia University’s Rita McGrath covered the MOOC movement at AACSB’s 2013 Deans Conference, she made a cataclysmic prediction. She speculated that our industry will break down into pieces as students pick and choose courses from renowned experts in all subject areas, regardless of where those faculty members work.

If she’s right, will we see the day when employers collectively decide that a handful of well-chosen online courses are as good as a graduate degree from one university? Or will we see the day when these experts cut all ties with their home universities and set up business for themselves? Business schools need an entrepreneurial outlook if they’re going to survive such wholesale transformations.

5. Refocusing on undergraduate education. American high school seniors have now made business majors more popular than liberal arts majors. Many well-known business schools offer only graduate degrees, and many b-school deans don’t believe 18-year-olds are mature enough to major in business. But undergraduates represent a vast potential market, and entrepreneurial deans will find ways to tap it.

At ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, we’ve already made adjustments to reflect some of these five new realities. For instance, we’re planning to follow up last year’s launch of our master’s in business analytics program with a new bachelor’s in business analytics this fall. In recent years, we’ve also introduced several interdisciplinary degrees that combine a traditional undergraduate business degree with different concentrations from other ASU schools, such as sustainability, legal studies, communication, and technology.

On the graduate level, we’ve addressed changing student needs. As an example, in 2012, we launched a master’s in management to cater to students without business backgrounds, and more specialized master’s programs are in the pipeline. I expect other schools to show their entrepreneurial spirit as they revamp their own programs to adapt to a changing educational environment.


One reason I believe deans need to behave more like entrepreneurs is that more of our students are choosing to be entrepreneurs themselves. They admire successful entrepreneurs, as opposed to the executives who lead mature organizations; they see entrepreneurs as people who can make a difference in the world, while they think executives have created some of our economic and environmental crises. It’s no wonder that, in 2013, enrollment in ASU’s entrepreneurship major surpassed enrollment in its more traditional undergraduate economics major.

I worry that business schools are not offering students the training they need to become entrepreneurs; we’re training them the way we train executives. But something else worries me, too. If we do train them to become entrepreneurs, will we hurt ourselves in the rankings?

Most business school rankings are based on the kinds of metrics that would be used for schools primarily educating executives. These rankings look at job placements and starting salaries; they don’t consider how many students start their own businesses. When our graduates go to work for themselves and live off their credit cards for a year, they’re chasing their own dreams and having an impact on society. But we can’t point to them when the rankings organizations ask us to identify our most visible alumni.

If we’re constrained by the metrics of the past, business school deans will never be the risk takers who capitalize on the opportunities of the present. We need to shift the paradigm. We need to recognize that the era calls for entrepreneurs in the classroom and in the dean’s office. There is still some value to having an executive’s skills—but we, and our students, need to learn how to operate in a world run by entrepreneurs.

Amy Hillman is dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe.