A B School That's A Case Study In Bad Management

After chewing up four deans in eight years, the University of Colorado College of Business & Administration in Boulder thought it had a winner last July, when it tapped Ralph Z. Sorenson. Formerly president of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and chief executive of a Massachusetts manufacturing company, "Bud" Sorenson won out over 100 other candidates. He was expected to "lead us to greatness," says Robert H. Deming, chairman of Columbia (Mo.) appliance maker Toastmaster Inc., who was on the search team. The dean's staff was so enthused that they greeted their new boss wearing T-shirts saying "This Bud's For You."

As it turned out, this Bud wasn't for C.U. On May 4, Sorenson quit, citing as motive "noncollegial practices"--academese for sabotage and back-stabbing. Alarmed, the university on May 24 took what may be an unprecedented step in business-school history: It declared what some faculty are calling "martial law" at the school--suspending normal operating rules, disbanding existing faculty committees, and installing a code of conduct that will include sanctions against unprofessional behavior. The message: Even tenured professors who cause trouble now may be fired.

Are things that desperate in Boulder? In a word, yes. By just about all accounts, the historical problems at C.U. read like a B-school case study in bad management: lack of focus, bureaucracy, resistance to change, and underfunding. "We stink," says one faculty member. "C.U. is on nobody's list of the top 20 business schools. Hell, it's not even in the top 40."

The way he tells it, Sorenson launched a turnaround plan aimed at improving the school. He wanted to focus on entrepreneurship, rather than on training students for jobs in large corporations. He also put students and the business community ahead of faculty. Says Sorenson: "I felt teaching was more important than research."

Sorenson says his plans riled dissident faculty members. Emphasis on such skills as leadership, teamwork, writing, and speaking, says Sorenson, "broke down functional fiefdoms" within the school. "That's a scary thing. There was a resistance on the part of some faculty to change." In the end, says Sorenson, he decided that "life was too short to live in such a charged atmosphere."

BUZZ-SAW MASSACRE. Faculty also may have been miffed by his emphasis on student concerns. After Sorenson held a "Breakfast with Bud" meeting with students, one professor complained to a student: "He knows your name but not mine." Another griped that when Sorenson opened the once sacrosanct dean's conference room to informal meals, his first guests were students, not faculty.

Sorenson's faculty critics, however, say the real problem was his lack of leadership. "Bud was a very bad manager," insists Assistant Finance Professor Richard H. Jefferis Jr. He says Sorenson's strategic plan avoided making hard decisions about cutting the school's costs and, instead, was mostly rhetoric. "It says things like we should have better relationships with the business community. Well, every faculty member agrees with that," says Jefferis. In addition, he charges, Sorenson had a "bottomless in-basket" and failed to do some key academic chores.

Whatever the truth, Sorenson clearly walked into a political buzz saw. Anonymous notes began to appear in faculty mail boxes, attacking his record and the increased involvement of business people at the school. In addition, says John M. Hess, professor of marketing and international business, about six "incendiaries," out of a faculty of 66, consistently tried to subvert reforms at the school. Says Hess: "The vocal few took over because the rest of us said, `I want to get some work done. I don't want to fight you."'

Sorenson says he hopes his decision to step down "will provide shock therapy" that will get the school back on track. It's not going to happen soon. The university says it will name an interim dean by June, probably an insider but not a member of the business school. It won't launch a search for a permanent dean until the school is straightened out. Then again, anyone who can fix up this mess would probably make a pretty good dean.

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