With MBA Value in Doubt, B-Schools Pursue New Deans

(Corrects spelling of Hassell McClellan's name in eighth paragraph.)

In the next few months there'll be a rare confluence of change at the pinnacle of management education. The two top business schools in Bloomberg BusinessWeek's biennial ranking of full-time MBA programs—the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harvard Business School—will lose their deans to a rival and retirement, respectively. Their replacements, as yet unknown, will have a huge role in determining how thousands of future business leaders get educated. That is, if they get educated.

This changing of the guard comes at a moment when the utility of a business school education increasingly is being called into question. The financial crisis has made it difficult for graduates from even top schools to find jobs. At No. 1-ranked Chicago, 13.5% of 2009 graduates were jobless three months after graduation, a more than fivefold increase over 2007. Endowments, having sustained their worst losses since the Great Depression, are so battered that even storied Harvard has been forced to lay off 16 HBS staffers. And with so many alums working on Wall Street, top B-schools are under attack from critics who blame the financial meltdown on MBAs—an acronym that author Philip Delves Broughton considers shorthand for "Masters of the Business Apocalypse."

It's this transformed world that the new leaders at Chicago and Harvard are expected to inherit this summer. One institution, No. 3-ranked Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, has already taken the first steps. On Tuesday, it announced that Sally Blount of New York University's Stern School of Business will replace interim dean Sunil Chopra, assuming the position vacated by Dipak Jain.

The choice speaks volumes about where Kellogg sees its future. At NYU, where Blount is dean of the undergraduate college and vice-dean at Stern, she is known as a skilled fund-raiser and a curriculum innovator with a global bent. Under her guidance, NYU started two new global degree options that require students to spend several semesters abroad. "The fundamentals haven't changed," Blount says of the challenges she will face at Kellogg. "The bigger changes are more global, and making sure that people know how to be 'boundary-spanners'—across geographies, ethnicities, and disciplines."

Deans at top B-schools are expected to be fund-raisers, construction foremen, consensus builders, talent poachers, publicists, foreign emissaries, and visionaries-in-chief. It's not an easy gig to fill in the best of times, especially for the top three schools, whose leaders are under a microscope. "They're very influential over the rest of the 12,000 business schools in the world," says John J. Fernandes, CEO of AACSB International, which accredits B-schools worldwide. "It's like being appointed head of a G7 country."

Business schools may need fresh blood to tackle the problems they face, but new deans are almost always academic lifers, not corporate kingpins. One reason, says Glen Urban, dean emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, is that even top schools can't afford the best corporate talent. And such "nontraditional" candidates often simply aren't equipped to deal with tenured faculty, who frequently are resistant to change. "There's always the analogy of herding cats around a baseball diamond in the rain," Urban says. "You might think you're in control more than you actually are."

At Chicago, outgoing Dean Edward Snyder was particularly adept at fund-raising: He scored the biggest B-school gift ever, a $300 million whopper from alumnus David Booth. He also expanded Booth's international footprint and retained its roster of star faculty, including several Nobel Prize winners. Still, the school got hammered by the economy last year, with its job placement rate at graduation falling 16 percentage points, to 79%; its endowment posted a 23% loss, to $389 million.

Those mentioned as possible successors—according to alumni, faculty, and student leaders—include two Booth deputy deans, Mark E. Zmijewski and Stacey Kole, and Associate Professor Hassell H. McClellan of Boston College's Carroll School of Management. Zmijewski says he's not a candidate, Kole declined to comment, and McClellan, reached by telephone, said he has not been contacted by anyone from the search committee. "This is the first I heard of it," he says.

Harvard, being Harvard, is taking a big-picture approach to its dean search. At the HBS 2008 centennial, outgoing Dean Jay O. Light spoke about the importance of experiential learning and keeping the curriculum relevant and focused on leadership skills. His remarks were a road map of the challenges his successor, and all B-school deans, soon will face. The names that have surfaced in connection with the search are all Harvard insiders. Joseph L. Badaracco is a senior associate dean and chair of the MBA program, Nitin Nohria is a business professor, and Srikant M. Datar is a senior associate dean. Badaracco and Nohria declined to comment; Datar did not return calls.

Whoever it is, says HBS Alumni Board President Ann Kelly, the new dean should have strong leadership skills and a deep understanding of HBS. "We want someone who can be visionary, but not so visionary that you undo all of the good things that have been done in the past," Kelly says. Maybe so, but with their collective past under attack, B-schools might want to consider a radical idea: a clean break.

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