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As he sat there with impressive posture, casually perusing his newspaper of choice while in DC’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I could instantly tell that the bespectacled man before me was the academic scholar I was due to interview. He proudly wore the University of Virginia’s historic rotunda on the mint green tie that lay in stark contrast to his cleverly crisp suit fitted to a tee. He goes by Dr. Bob Bruner, or rather Dean Bruner to the community he leads.
Charged with directing one of the most prestigious business schools in the nation, Bruner has oft been recognized for personally challenging the traditional model of learning with a more innovative approach to teaching students how to be successful change makers.
He lives and breathes the phrase “excellence is a moving target,” which he reiterated time and again throughout our conversation, explaining that business schools “must innovate relentlessly,” which is exactly what UVA’s Darden School of Business has focused on for the past few years.
“The idea is that business schools are static and slow to react to current situations,” Bruner said, wearing a confident expression on his face. “Nowadays the Internet buzz is that you don’t learn much at business school, but we have to get out of our comfort zone with new products and projects. I encourage individual faculty to try new things. It’s not hard for me to nudge and encourage them to move along and practice and not stand still.”
That’s the biggest challenge for business schools, adapting to their surroundings and keeping up with the times. But from what I could tell from Bruner, it seems as if Darden’s mission is focused on approaching academia in a more proactive, forward-thinking way.
Which would explain why Bruner is such a big proponent for online learning. Darden already has five massive open online courses (MOOCs) to boast of to date, which is impressive considering the amount of universities these days that still doubt that platforms like edX and Coursera will be around 10 years from now.
“Everyone says ‘you’re a business school, why are you giving it away for free,’ but we’re proud to count ourselves as one of the most active business schools in online learning,” Bruner said. “MOOCs are consistent with our mission and we’re learning a great deal about digital instruction with practice.”
When asked whether MOOCs are just a fad, Bruner admitted that “it’s new territory and we want to understand how best to use online learning,” but MOOCs are “helping a part of the world to learn about Darden, a population that was pretty much oblivious to the existence of the school beforehand.”
As our conversation progressed, Bruner delved even more into what sets Darden apart from other competitive business schools, defending UVA’s value despite the rise of student loans and other dismal financial factors that tend to turn students off from earning their MBA.
“If you’re simply shopping for a diploma, get an online degree, but if you want to change your life and feel in your heart that you can be a significant leader, whatever we charge for Darden isn’t enough,” Bruner said, passion showing through his carefully worded statement. “Darden is one of the best schools on the planet if you’re looking for a life change.”
Approximately 13,000 institutions have degrees in business, and of those 13,000, only 1,300 have been accredited. There are just about 200 school ranked in the top five business school rankings and 20-25 schools admit less than half of their applicants. Darden is among those highly selective schools, only further showcasing what an outstanding business program the University of Virginia lays host to.
But Darden wouldn’t be able to tout the title of fourth best full-time MBA program in the world if it weren’t for the man in charge. Bruner was named Dean of the Year in 2012 and for good reason, which is what prompted me to ask the question, “What do you believe are three of the most important characteristics of a ‘successful’ dean?” To which Bruner responded,
You have to have the temperament of a coalition builder and business leader. I liken the position to that of a Prime Minister. If you have a command and control style you will flame up quickly in academia. You need to love the institution you serve. It helps bring a passion to the work you do and be able to empathize with the coalitions you serve. You also have to have a taste for research and teaching.
I couldn’t agree more, which I’m sure Bruner noticed as I nodded my head one time too many.
The nods of approval only continued as Bruner went on to talk about entrepreneurship on campus, and the pros and cons to students jumping head first into the startup realm.
“Business school can be advantageous for budding entrepreneurs in many ways,” he started. First off, it can “dramatically accelerate your learning of concepts that will help to reduce the downside of startups. There’s no denying the spirit of the entrepreneur – it is incredible – but you look at the pain they experience and you wonder if courses in entrepreneurship could forestall such failure.”
By choosing to go the business school route prior to launching a fledgling venture, students are able to “crystalize their concept so that when they try to sell their product they know what they’re doing,” Bruner explained. “There’s a romance about entrepreneurship, but it’s risky. You live an anxiety generating life fraught with personal setbacks. We start teaching students about the reality of entrepreneurship and more often than not they realize they need to hone in on their idea more before they can really start building their dream.” It’s almost as if business school is a saving grace, a safe way to evaluate whether your venture is one worth chasing after.
That’s what it’s all about for Bruner. As dean of the Darden School of Business, his job title entails developing and inspiring the next generation of responsible leaders by advancing their knowledge. And truth be told, he’s doing so flawlessly, guiding students toward finding success through mastering the foundations of business.