A Talk with the Broad School's New Dean

Robert Duncan on the challenges of taking the reins at Michigan State's B-school and his plans for the coming year

Our guest on Feb. 13 was Robert B. Duncan, the new dean of Michigan State's Broad Graduate School of Management (29th on BusinessWeek's 2000 rankings of full-time MBA programs). Duncan comes to the Broad School after a long career at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It was there that he began teaching in 1970, after getting his PhD at Yale. He later served as provost at Northwestern from 1987 to 1992, and as an associate dean at Kellogg. Duncan was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: You've been at Michigan State's B-school for a little more than a month. What changes are in store in your first year?


We're taking a look at the curriculum to make sure that the various programs are preparing our students to be effective leaders in the global environment. We're also looking at executive education, and at continuing to build the Broad brand.

We're starting to develop the strategic academic vision of the Broad School. Right now, the school is about developing leaders for the global economy. We're using a panel of outside experts, including alumni and recruiters, to define the critical functional and interpersonal skills that such a person needs to have. Second, each academic department is defining new research issues in their areas and what Broad's competencies are. For instance, information-technology management is a real strength of ours.

Q: What improvements are you aiming for in Broad's small executive-education operation?


The strategy is to grow exec ed. The school just opened a new executive development center, called The James B. Henry Center. It's spectacular, one of the leading edge facilities around in terms of classrooms and electronic capabilities for distance learning, such as video conferencing.

We're going to expand the programs offered by the school. We have a tremendous opportunity, since the faculty has expertise that's relevant to real-world problems.

Q: Your growth plans would seem easier to achieve in a booming economy. How do you expand exec ed when companies are cutting training and development budgets, and reducing business travel?


We work with companies that are close to the school to develop company-specific programs.

Q: Will you spend time in the classroom?


I'll do some teaching in executive programs. Maybe I'll also do some guest teaching at the undergraduate and MBA levels. That's important, because you can't ask faculty to do anything you don't do yourself.

Q: Of course, the secret to a dean's success is developing a faculty consensus.


Right. You have to be role model.

Q: Do the Broad academics trust you?


I know I'm an outsider coming in. The initial part of that process is to create excitement about moving forward. I've had experience building programs, in doing leading-edge things in curriculum development, and in executive education development. So that gives me some credibility coming in.

Beyond that, you have to earn trust. You have to be a role model, and be able to work with faculty. In January, I sat down with each department and each program area, to talk about my ideas, but listened, too. One of the most important things that a leader can say is, "What do you think?"

Q: Why make the move from Kellogg to Michigan State?


I enjoy building things, and Michigan State is a great opportunity. It has accomplished a lot under the leadership of James Henry over the years. I was really impressed. The faculty is very enthusiastic about keeping up the momentum.

Q: What is it you hope to build?


In five years, the school will produce graduates who have great understanding of business functions and skills in change leadership. It's the latter that make you successful. Enron, for instance, wasn't just an accounting problem. It was an accounting/organizational problem.

Q: Did you consider the Kellogg vacancy before Dipak Jain became dean?


Yes, but I had been at Kellogg forever. I've done what I can do at Northwestern.

Q: Are there things you won't miss from your years at Kellogg?


It was a great experience. But to me, the most exciting thing is building something that's on the way up. I had a great time at Kellogg, but I'm really excited about the faculty, the administration, and the staff at the Broad School. It seems to be a very cohesive place. We are going to work very hard. It's going to be challenging. But that's the fun of it.

Q: What are the major areas of improvement you see for the Broad School?


Everything we do in a management school has to focus on leadership. And a key aspect of the leader's role is making change and innovation happen. The question becomes, how do you best teach and develop that? What's unique about the Broad School is that it is doing innovative things on leadership in the first-year curriculum.

For instance, we have a leadership and team lab that lets students do a lot of simulations. The students go to the lab and practice those skills. You can't do that in a larger program. The other thing that's unique and that we'll build on is Broad's Leadership Alliance Program. It pairs every MBA with a real-world leader to discuss leadership issues, and to bring some insights from that leader's company into a course at Broad.

It helps that the MBA program at Broad is small, with 211 students in the day program. You can teach a lot of conceptual skills in a smaller group -- how to think strategically, build an organization to support your strategy, and practice your leadership behavior.

To make a long story short, it gives us an opportunity to provide a much more comprehensive view of the whole leadership-development perspective.

Q: You aren't the only dean to talk about MBAs being masters of leading through change, innovation, and even crisis. But can such skills be taught in a classroom?


If you think leaders are born and not made, then business schools are irrelevant. There are certain things a leader brings to a situation: character, integrity, honesty, ability, intellect, good conceptualization skills, passion, energy, and consistency. There are other skills that are critical to learn: problem solving, diagnosing decision making, being a motivator, building a team, aligning people so that they're all pulling in the same direction. Those are all things that have to be developed. I believe that these skills can be taught. But you have to have an environment where you can practice.

Q: Are most MBAs equipped to handle this now?


Business schools are all about creating leading edge, usable knowledge that deals with the critical issues facing organizations. That's why your faculty has to be very good at research and working with organizations to get a sense of how things are changing dramatically.

Q: How do you plan to manage MBAs' expectations in an economy that isn't creating many jobs?


We have a very effective career-placement office. One thing I'll spend some time on is the placement process. Yes, it's a tough time for all of us. But I think we'll be fine in that area.

Q: You seem quite positive, but surely there are things that concern you.


We are all concerned about the marketplace and the economy. In terms of placement, we have to work very creatively. We also have to look at how September 11 affects how we teach various subjects, especially organizations in crisis.

I also want to develop an interdisciplinary center that will look at change and innovation in organizations. Broad has a climate where organizational, marketing, finance, and accounting people can all look at issues together. We can't solve Enron by looking at it as just a finance problem.

Q: Do you have the money you need to create new centers and improve Broad's brand, or are you going to be out on the road asking Broad alumni for help?


I've talked to [Broad] donors already. We are going to be laying out a major campaign to raise funds.

Q: How much are you looking to raise?


I can tell you it's a lot. And we can do that. That's an area where we can do a much better job because your alumni are your ambassadors. We've got to get them involved as we develop a Broad image. They are very important sources for us in determining curricula.

Q: How does a school with 30% international students, located in Michigan, achieve a serious global viewpoint?


How does any U.S. school do it? It's easier if you're in Europe, because you're up against cross-cultural issues. But it helps that our student body is international. That gives us a push to think about business issues from a global perspective.

Q: Has former Dean Don Jacobs of Kellogg offered any words of wisdom?


I've worked very closely with Don. He's been a great mentor for all of us. One of the advantages of my time at Kellogg is that I've learned a lot working with Don Jacobs, one of the most innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial deans around. I also had five years as faculty dean. That was a very tough time at Northwestern, back in the late 1980s, because we had a lot of budgetary problems. That gave me an opportunity to roll up my sleeves, go in and fix something.

I always say to people, I might have some insights, not because I'm smarter than anybody else, but because I've had the opportunity to learn from a lot of people. And my leadership style is that I don't care who gets credit. My goal is to make the place better. I want everybody's ideas, and the most important thing is that we make progress.

Q: More B-school students are raising the issue of corporate social responsibility. How do you ensure that Broad MBAs are aware of how their business decisions impact the communities and environments they will do business in?


It's throughout the curriculum. Our students take a course each year on business ethics and the legal environment. That exposes them to the issues. We also talk a great deal about the issues surrounding corporate culture. The Enron problem was driven by broader organizational, ethical, and cultural things. The Enron downfall creates an opportunity for business schools to make sure that we're providing students with the mindset that prevents that from happening again.

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