Reflections of an Ex-Dean: Complacency Is a Dinosaur's Greatest Enemy

I recently stepped down after five years as dean of Nottingham University Business School and am currently setting about resuming my comparatively quiet life as a researcher and a peripheral contributor of well-intentioned wisdom.

I have long been aware that the former deans of business schools in the UK suffer a somewhat less glamorous fate than their counterparts in the U.S. In the States ex-deans are afforded an elevated status akin to that traditionally reserved for royalty; in Britain we are merely sent back to our old offices.

The latter is the destiny that now awaits me. I recently stepped down after five years as dean of Nottingham University Business School and am currently setting about resuming my comparatively quiet life as a researcher and a peripheral contributor of well-intentioned wisdom.

I freely admit that the prospect of reacquainting myself with a smaller desk in a less palatial office and without my wonderful team is moderately unsettling. Yet I can at least vacate my lofty perch in the knowledge that, post-deanship life aside, business schools the world over share the same successes and shortcomings that I grew familiar with during my half-decade in the hot seat.

This much became especially clear through my attendance at numerous conferences, particularly those organized by AACSB. These events provided a fascinating and welcome insight into a reassuring commonality of experience, revealing the predictable similarities of managing staff, egos, and personalities and the shared challenge of leadership in a sector uncomfortably conscious of the need for change.

My role gave me responsibility for around 2,000 students, 145 academics, and 60 administrative staff in the UK, as well as oversight of a further 3,200 students, 140 academics, and 50 administrators within the business schools at the University of Nottingham’s campuses in China and Malaysia. Having previously served as deputy dean and as head of a teaching and research institute, I had always appreciated that business schools do certain things well and other things not so well; yet I was still surprised by what I learned.

The one lesson above all others that I have taken away—and which, in turn, I would like to convey—is that dinosaurs are getting younger. When I reflect on all my experiences as dean, from the double-edged sword of greater decision-making powers to the need to balance an ever-fluctuating set of priorities, everything somehow funnels back to this observation. The notion is an overarching and highly important one, because it goes to the heart of the constant quest to remain relevant.

I do not deny my own dinosaur-like qualities. When I became dean I was painfully aware that the overwhelming majority of my students would probably regard me as a relic from another epoch. After all, most students are in their late teens—a boast to which I have long since abandoned any credible claim.

Yet what struck me during my deanship was the speed at which we all risk becoming “out of date” in a world in which the rate of transformation is arguably unprecedented. This is not to say we can no longer make a meaningful, valuable, and effective contribution; rather, it is to say that each of us, whether willingly or unwittingly, inexorably becomes detached from the cutting edge of technology and development.

It is even no exaggeration to suggest that many students might find that by their mid-20s they are somewhat disconnected from the new realities that face those who come after them. In other words, the environment that graduates enter may well bear little or no relationship to that of a few years previously, let alone that of the deans and senior academics tasked with steering a curriculum that best meets the requirements of the student population.

This being the case, I am convinced that one of the most telling contributions a dean can make is to demonstrate that a culture of improvement, adaptation, and genuine change—rather than empty rhetoric—starts at the top. Moreover, that culture must be flexible and all-encompassing.

Alternative perspectives are crucial to achieving this goal. Although I earmarked authoritative confidence as an essential component of my leadership make-up, I surrounded myself with a close team whose members were sufficiently curious and self-assured to furnish me—and each other—with much-needed reality checks.

More broadly, the perceptions of those from beyond academia are also of tremendous worth. In some ways this is the very essence of creative problem-solving, a field in which I have carried out much of my research. We have to acknowledge that answers lurk everywhere and that there is much to be said for switching from the specific to the general and back again.

"We too easily overlook how well positioned business schools are to take a lead in bucking the trend of suffocating risk-aversion."

It is also vital that academics continue to teach. As I know from my conversations with other deans, it is depressingly routine for senior staff to feel their research eminence absolves them of this basic commitment, at least as far as undergraduate teaching is concerned. Some have simply lost confidence in their own abilities, but others have forgotten—or perhaps chosen to ignore—the significance of such work. The less you engage with the student population, the less you will know about their world and how they see it.

Ultimately, though, it is not just a question of keeping pace: it is a question of setting the pace. With the university sector as a whole stuck in a rut of incrementalism, we too easily overlook how well positioned business schools are to take a lead in bucking the trend of suffocating risk-aversion. We boast a remarkable epistemic base and a tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration—one that should be expanded beyond the neatly aligned and often unimaginative alliances that proliferate today—and we are not using these weapons to full effect.

We all know that a major concern frequently expressed at deans’ conferences and elsewhere is that business schools have not substantially revised or refined their overall offering for the better part of 50 years or more. When you pause and think about this self-imposed torpor—not least in light of the marked lack of inertia in much of the “real world” for which we are supposedly preparing our students—it is frankly incredible. Although the phrase has long since been rendered a rather tired trope, a paradigm shift is precisely what we now need.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. This must be so, otherwise we would surely have done it already. Our putative freedom is in some ways heavily constrained. We enjoy a significant measure of autonomy, yet we are required to negotiate various permissions with regard to appointments and expenditure outside our allocated budgets. Management responsibility still rests principally with academics but is under mounting threat. We are increasingly hamstrung by the encroachment of professional administrators and the culture of centralism.

Yet threats and opportunities tend to go hand-in-hand. Business schools too routinely preach radical innovation while discreetly neglecting to practice it themselves. We have become accustomed to a piecemeal, metric-driven philosophy that prizes the cozy predictability of step-by-step progress over the huge potential of “creative destruction”; and this is an approach conspicuously out of sync with the best thinking from beyond our ivory towers.

As I said earlier, there are many things that business schools do well. That is well worth remembering. But the fact that they also do some things not so well underscores the perils of complacency.

Similarly, as I return to the sidelines and wonder why I no longer receive so many invitations to conferences, I think I got most things right but could have done others better. That was this old dinosaur’s modest contribution to staving off mass extinction. I hope deans everywhere, regardless of whether they are ultimately feted or forgotten, appreciate the scale of their task and the long-term implications of the paths they choose to pursue.

Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a professor of entrepreneurial development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.