“I have never known anything even approaching this level of change before.” This verdict on the current “musical chairs” playing out among the deans who hold the top jobs at business schools comes from Anne Kiem, chief executive of the Chartered Association of Business Schools.
The changes are dramatic. Ms Kiem, whose organisation represents UK MBA providers, says: “In the past 12 months we have seen a third of our 120 members appoint new deans and there is a limited pool of candidates. Lots of people don’t want to move jobs and lots of faculty academics might fit the bill but do not want to take on what is a tough leadership role.”
This rapid turnover at the top of business schools, and the widening search for suitable candidates to fill leadership roles, is a global trend. In the past 12 months several longstanding deans have retired, such as Ted Snyder at Yale University’s School of Management, or have been promoted to help run parent universities, such as Kai Peters, who went from Ashridge Business School to become pro-vice-chancellor at Coventry University.
The churn at the top comes at a time of exceptional change for business schools, as the role of deans widens in scope. They are now business leaders, responsible for the financial health of their schools, as well as heading academic institutions.
MBA courses are undergoing something of an existential crisis, with more students wanting to pursue shorter programmes. Alongside that is a sector-wide — and potentially sector-altering — debate over the purpose of business education and its role in teaching future leaders to be more mindful of environmental, social and governance goals.
Deans have to lead their schools through this mass of potentially conflicting demands and institutions are turning to a more varied pool of candidates to meet these challenges. Some are hiring leaders from multinational businesses, such as Sharon Hodgson at Western University’s Ivey Business School, a former IBM general manager with no prior academic experience; or choosing heads of other university departments, such as Fiona Devine, the sociology professor who now runs Alliance Manchester Business School.
This year started with vacancies at two of the sector’s most recognisable names, Harvard Business School and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Wharton has just announced Erika James as its next dean, the first woman and the first person of colour to take the role. She is currently dean of Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta.
In the frame at HBS, which has always hired from its current or former academic staff, are two female faculty: Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management, and Youngme Moon, professor of business.
“Business schools are not corporations, but they are academic institutions with business aspects to them,” says Jackie Gallagher Zavitz, a partner at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
“They therefore look for someone who can set strategy and bring people along with them, as well as having a strong academic understanding. The trouble is that Venn diagram overlap for a person with all those qualities is small.”
Kenneth Kring, co-managing director of the global education practice at executive search firm Korn Ferry, likens the dean’s role to that of a regional general manager at a multinational. “The key performance indicators of a dean are the ability to raise new funds from donors, generate returns from course fees and manage campus property developments,” he says.
Only a handful of business schools are standalone institutions, so deans usually have to manage relationships within a wider university. This often means building respect among academics from other disciplines, who may view the research of management professors as inferior to their own, according to John Colley, a professor in strategy and leadership and associate dean at Warwick Business School.
“There is a slight condescension towards those of us in the business school, while at the same time those in other departments are highly dependent on us to produce revenue,” Mr Colley says.
Occasionally, professors move from wider academia into business schools. Janice Allan was a lecturer in Victorian literature in the School of English, Sociology, Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Salford when the vice-chancellor asked her to take on a three-month secondment as deputy dean of the university’s business school.
Within a week her term was lengthened to a year. This month she was appointed dean. “I believe I was hired because I had a proven record of KPIs [key performance indicators],” Ms Allan says. “I had overseen a fall in the dropout rate among students and increased the percentage of undergraduates progressing to masters degrees.
“When I came into the business school I was concerned that the differences in my academic discipline compared with the faculty here would be an insurmountable barrier, but I quickly realised what I was here to do was provide leadership.”
Ms Allan has continued her research into 19th-century popular fiction. Her latest book, on Sherlock Holmes, was published last year.
Ann Harrison, a former management professor at Wharton and director of development policy at the World Bank, was appointed dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2019. “The biggest challenge of this role is the stamina it requires,” Prof Harrison says. “It is very long days and you need to be empathetic with a wide variety of people. You need patience. You need a vision, too, and you really have to be all in.”
The gender balance at the top of business schools has been shifting: 25.8 per cent of business schools are now led by a woman, up from 20.5 per cent at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, according to global accreditation body the Association of Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Haas was the first of the “magnificent seven” highest-rated US MBA providers to be led twice by female deans. “This is a special place as a centre for liberal thinking and free speech,” Prof Harrison says. “I could never imagine being a dean of another school.”