The Leading Independent
Resource for Top-tier MBA
Home » Blog » News » MBA News » Clear Admit Chats with Dean Bob Bruner of UVA’s Darden School of Business

Clear Admit Chats with Dean Bob Bruner of UVA’s Darden School of Business

bob brunerWhen Bob Bruner, dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia, casually mentioned getting together over a cup of tea in Philadelphia last month, Clear Admit jumped at the chance. It’s not every day that the dean of a top-ranked MBA program proposes meeting up – in our own city no less. It would turn out to be just a part of what makes Bruner unlike some other deans.

A member of the Darden faculty since 1982 and its dean since 2005, Bruner has long promoted Darden’s commitment to high-engagement teaching and to fostering a collaborative community-oriented ethic among its students. His efforts have won him multiple leading teaching awards at the University of Virginia and within the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as designation as 2012 “Dean of the Year” by Forbes/CNN Money and PoetsandQuants.

Bruner has long set himself apart as a dean who blogs and tweets regularly, hoping to share his unique perspectives with a wider audience. “There are few deans that blog about their own work or the world around them or higher education,” he told us. “I think that’s a shame. I think deans have a lot to say that could inform the way all the stakeholders at business schools engage their schools and shape expectations about the schools.”

For more on what Bruner has to say – on topics ranging from gender equity and the MBA to growth in massive open online courses (MOOCs) to the ways graduate management education must adapt to and embrace globalization – read on.

Clear Admit: Tell us about Charlottesville. What are the advantages and disadvantages to having a business school there?

Bob Bruner: The straightforward answer is it is a tremendous town to live in for two years plus. Many people come to Darden, want to come to study with us and want to stay. So it is attracting its own entrepreneurial community. Other Darden alums study at Darden, go away and work, and then they want to come back after five, 10, 15 years and set up businesses. So we have a thriving tech industry, private equity community, asset management community – and the university and the Darden School are helping to be a nexus of those groups. We have an incubator, we have a very, very successful innovation and entrepreneurship institute, the Batten Institute. And we just started a center for asset management that attracts professional asset managers and the like. So it is a lovely town anointed by no less than USA Today as the most desirable small town to live in.

I was cornered about a year and half ago by a broadcast journalist. I was literally in a corner, she thrust a microphone in my face, with a cameraman behind her, and said, “You know, I live in Manhattan. I could get an MBA from a dozen schools there, and they are more convenient, I could stay in my own apartment, continue my own circle of friends, and I wouldn’t have to work as hard because everyone knows how rigorous Darden is. Why, why oh why, would I leave Manhattan to go all the way up to the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains to attend Darden?”

I asked her, “When you like to dine out, where do you like to eat?” This was one of those eyes glaze over moments and I thought she was going to tell the cameraman to turn off the camera. But she took the bait. She said, well because I am constantly chasing news stories I eat where I can when I can, but what I really like are those intimate little restaurants where the ingredients are fresh that day, recipes are original, service is just so, presentation is excellent, the wine list is superb…I walk out of those little-hole-in-the-wall restaurants with an absolutely new attitude about food.” She went on at considerable length. I said that’s what Darden is like.

Darden is a destination school. It is not necessarily the easiest, most convenient or least expensive, but it is a school to which you would go if you really want to change your life in professional ways and, in fact, in even deeper ways. We specialize in helping students discover what they are strong at and helping them find their ways into those careers. Many of our alums will describe Darden as an absolutely transformative experience. It changed their lives – they thought they were going to pursue one career but instead took a 90-degree turn into something else. It’s a very common testimonial I get.

The Charlottesville community is kind of a metaphor for the experience within Darden. So Darden is relatively smaller than what people would regard as our peer schools – we have about 320 students per class in the full-time program, 60 in the executive MBA (EMBA) and 30 in the global executive MBA (GEMBA). We do a great deal in the way of collaborative work among students. Because the class sizes are relatively smaller – literally, even the classrooms are smaller than many of our peer schools – and the student body is smaller, the students all get to know each other. There is a very collaborative community-oriented ethic in our culture. We don’t like to get ahead by scoring off of other people, climbing over the backs of others. It’s much more, “Come on everybody, here’s the way to solve this problem.” And people chip in and say, “And I can improve on that, and I can do this,” and so on. It trains our students to be managers and leaders and to bring the best out of teams.

So I hear from the companies who recruit at Darden that they especially value our students for their practicality, their grounded-ness, their ability to hit the ground running. They don’t take a year to burn in, to shed the lofty theoretically approaches that they may have learned. They play well in the sandbox, they contribute well to teams, they help lead teams and get the best out of team-based work. They communicate well. If you participate in 600 case study discussions over the course of two years you are bound to be able to develop an ability to express ideas and recommendations. And we have a very strong emphasis on business ethics and the role of integrity in being able to lead well.

CA: How much of that emphasis is a response to the recent crisis and how much of that has been in place for some time?

BB: We were one of the leaders in establishing a required graded course in business ethics, and that was back in the 1980s. We have an extremely strong business ethics faculty, regarded as among the world’s leaders in this area. I think the crisis really brought out, certainly stimulated in my heart, a very deep reflection about the purpose of business schools and the impact on not only the lives of individuals – the students – but also the corporations and other organizations where we send our students. I know other deans I have spoken with have experienced the same reflective kind of process. It’s pretty clear that the world wants different managers and leaders than what you see in “Mad Men” – or some of the other very popular, power-oriented shows. Indeed, I don’t think that works very well. We discovered that being able to lead a diverse team – not a team of five Bob Bruners, but a team differing by gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. – is an unusual skill, and ordinarily it leads to better insights and outcomes than some kind of command-and-control approach.

CA: Speaking of “Mad Men” and diversity, you saw the New York Times piece on gender equity at Harvard Business School? What is it like to be a female student at Darden?

BB: I read that article with humility, and I think all deans in privacy of conversations among deans would acknowledge that there’s a lot about student life that occurs outside of the radar screen of deans. In some ways, that’s a reflection on the limited scope of rationality, our ability to absorb facts and details about student experience. It is also respectful in that many of our students are in their late 20s and they have private lives. “Thank you very much Dean, but don’t go there.”

I should acknowledge that I received my MBA and doctorate from HBS. My MBA was back in the 70s, and I graduated from the doctoral program in 1982. I didn’t see that [gender/class inequity] when I was there. The article is causing a fair amount of processing. I’m trying to understand the gender aspects but also the socio-economic aspects. It’s the latter that stimulates a lot of my thinking this week.

But the gender issues are nontrivial. Harvard is about three times Darden’s size and it’s a comparison of apples and oranges. I leave it to you to infer or to talk to the people at Harvard about their experiences. But we don’t put up with the kind of steamrolling that the article implied – not only for women but for other groups – in the sense that class discussions are dominated by white males or people who have industry experience, etc. Our faculty are really trained to bring out students from a variety of perspectives. Honestly I think that leads to better discussions of case problems. More importantly I think it models the kind of leadership that we inspire our students to demonstrate.

One of the reasons that I like to teach by the case method is that in a sense what we teach is how we teach. We are teaching the students to lead by questioning others, rather than command and control, telling one’s employees to do it this way, not that way. Instead we teach by reasoning with them and saying, “How do you suppose a customer experiences the engagement with our business when you just set the tea down as compared to when you put down the cup and pour the tea and offer it up nicely?” That questioning process is the characteristic of leaders at some wonderful firms. As an example, Gortex comes to mind. The founder of the company was a revolutionary in his style of leadership of his management team and indeed of his employee base. He rarely gave commands or orders but instead quite typically would say, “Let’s think this through.” Another example is Johnsonville Sausage in Wisconsin.

I think the notion is that we are trying to model a way of addressing business problems and doing it in a way that is collaborative and brings out the best of everybody in the workforce, maybe even in the customers, the suppliers.

CA: You have been a tweeter and a blogger for quite some time. Is that personality or strategy of a combination of both? Are you an early adopter by nature?

BB: I have been blogging since 1996. I do it in large part because I want to bring a set of ideas and a perspective to an audience that I don’t readily see in the world. Now, every writer wants to believe that he or she has something absolutely different and special to say – so what I just said I say with a degree of humility. But there are few deans that blog about their own work or the world around them or higher education. I think that’s a shame. I think deans have a lot to say that could inform the way all the stakeholders at business schools engage their schools and shape expectations about the schools.

We have about 14,000 alumni spread all over the world, and though we have numerous means of communicating with our alums, none of them are quite as spontaneous or personalized as the blogs and tweets. So I do it to reach the wider community.

CA: What event, change, or development at Darden are you most excited about in the year ahead.

BB: Gosh, we have a passel of possibilities I could tell you about. I can tell you that right now we are in the midst of the delivery of two new MOOCs [massive open online courses]. Last spring we delivered three through Coursera, and this fall we have two new ones. One is a course, “Introduction to Strategy,” by Michael Lennox, a senior member of our faculty, a real enterprising colleague. He taught a strategy course last spring and has carried it forward this year and added more bells and whistles. It is an example of a course that is taking the canon of ideas in strategy and digitizing it through the MOOC. He has 87,000 registrants – I don’t even need to ask Mike Lennox, but I am quite confident that right there are more students than he has ever taught face to face in his accumulated career to date. But let’s also acknowledge that only a 10th will actually complete the course, submit the coursework, etc.

There’s another course being taught by Ed Freeman, “Capitalism and Society.” Freeman is a leading business ethicist, and I have had people reach out to me spontaneously to tell me how both courses are rocking their world. They are taking one or both. They are either alums or people in the business world, and they have to bubble about these courses.

The school is giving these courses for free, and the students evidently like it. Students are spontaneously organizing study groups in places like Pakistan, Argentina, the UK, New York City – to get together at coffee shops and talk about the content of that week and what they have learned. “Let’s compare, let’s make sure we really understand what’s going on, etc.” So there is a social media element to these courses that is really powerful. We are going to do something with that idea – I am not going to elaborate – but the opportunity for a not-for-profit educational institution like ours to have that kind of impact in the lives of students around the world is huge, and I am eager for us to begin to harness that. The tech, the MOOCs, would be a big element of what we are doing.

The second thing coming up this year – predating the New York Times article last Sunday – is that we have organized two tiger teams. Tiger teams are what we call groups of people on our faculty and staff who organize around particular topical issues intensively to develop opportunities or problems and offer up recommendations, which we then incorporate into our curriculum or practices as a school. We have two tiger teams together calling themselves the “Initiative on Women.”

The first is working on adopting some best practices that will enhance the educational experience of women at the Darden School. This does indeed look at patterns of participation and calling by professors and the like. But it goes well beyond it. Because what our students experience at the Darden School is an extraordinary blend of what happens in the classroom, as well as what takes place extracurricularly in clubs and social activities at the school, as well as ultra-extracurricularly, in the social life well beyond the organizing limits of the school.

We for years have paid attention to student satisfaction surveys, and the satisfaction of white males has ordinarily exceed that of white women, underrepresented minorities, international students. I am pleased to say that in recent years the satisfaction levels of women and men have virtually converged because of our efforts through tiger teams like this.

I think there is still more work to be done in the area of diversity. I am the eighth dean of Darden, and I was the first to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer. We have a very active diversity advisory group that comes in a couple times of year and talks to the whole leadership of the school about best practices in diversity and what we can do to raise our game.

The second tiger team in our Initiative on Women is for women alumni of the school who face a very different professional life of launching a career, maybe stopping out for children, maybe resuming back into business, the resumption of which is quite challenging. Women who have stopped out a while face doubts, questions of self-confidence and competence. If they don’t go back into business they might start small firms or work for nonprofit organizations, do very intensive volunteer work and the like. All of these issues are related in part to work-life balance, which have big implications for men. So we are also examining the experience of our male alums and filtering those insights back into our own curriculum. We would like to create experiences that sustain the professional lives of women alums of the Darden School and ideally can tell men something new and then bring those insights back into our program.

A third and final exciting element is our global outreach. We ordinarily deliver a dozen to 17 or 18 small global experiences for our MBA students around the world. This involves taking them to lovely places like Barcelona and elsewhere in Western Europe generally, for instance, as well as obvious places like China and India, as well as not-so-obvious places such as Tunisia and South Africa.

Students today don’t merely want to go and study in these distant places. Increasingly they want to go work on business problems or opportunities to have social impact. These types of global experiences take quite a lot of effort to set up – I am cautiously optimistic that the range of global experiences we offer this year will be our best yet.

We are going to hold an economic forum – a one-day conference in China. We will be taking a group of students to Normandy, France, in May to walk through the Normandy battlefields with some officers from the U.S. Marine Corps to talk about the stressful leadership challenges the officers faced as part of the D-Day invasion. The officers of the U.S. Marines will take small groups of five to 10 students each on a strenuous walk around the battlefields and stop periodically and say, “Put yourself there in June 1944, the wind is blowing at 20 knots an hour form the east, there’s low cloud cover, you hear airplanes coming in, you are beginning to get shelled from this direction or that, it’s been six hours since your men ate last, what will you do?” Through a repetitive discussion process throughout the day you have what amounts to a series of six to 10 mini case discussions. They put the students on the ground in a very authentic setting to reason through the leadership challenges that could meet any enterprise leader who has to worry about fulfilling the mission of the enterprise and yet leading and managing in ways that sustain the coherence of the team and the welfare of the group. All of those are examples of our work globally.

Women, technology, and globalization will be three very important themes for us this coming year.

CA: What do you worry prospective applicants may not know about Darden? What do you want to highlight?

BB: Because I have studied at many business schools and I have followed our peer schools very closely, I would say that the number one error of applicants is to assume that schools are substitutes for one another. That a learning experience at school A is like one at school B or school C. The mistake is to believe that all MBA diplomas are equal – to shrug your shoulders and just take one or another, don’t worry about it.

Big, big mistake. I know enough schools well from the inside to be able to say that – even among the most elite schools – the experience differs tremendously based upon the differences in culture of the school and a host of other things, the infrastructure, the setting, the resources available. To fight this notion that schools are easy substitutes for one another, I encourage applicants to get on the ground and simply observe what the different schools are like. Any school that you would intend to spend two years and a lot of money and a lot of hard work on really ought to be the focus of a great deal of investigation.

A great learning experience can tee you up for extraordinary discovery and success. It might save you from years spent walking down the wrong path that you might later regret, it can frame participation in a wider community that could have lasting impact. So you need to figure out what feels right, and the only way to do that is to get on the ground and do the investigation.

CA: Do you find that your applicant pool is fairly self-selecting? Have the majority of applicants done a good job of identifying what makes Darden Darden?

BB: I am reasonably confident that the applicant pool comes to Darden knowing that Darden is Darden. I say that because we are pretty transparent about what it is that makes Darden different from virtually all of our peer schools. Our admissions receptions are quite different experiences. The presence we create in the digital sphere is quite different. We have YouTube episodes that demonstrate a case study discussion, people can check out some of our best teachers by looking at MOOCs.

CA: How much attention do you personally pay to the admissions process, admissions trends?

BB: I am pretty involved in that I engage with the admissions director pretty frequently, participate very actively in the admissions events that we hold and engage with prospective applicants. But the conditional clause is that no dean can possibly hope to see the entire range of the applicant pool. We have between eight and nine applicants for every seat in our class. It is tempting for any dean to look over the shoulder of the admissions director and say, “Do this, not that.” I think that’s a formula for great error. If a dean needs to intervene to that extent I’m not sure why the dean would need an assistant dean of admissions. The other thing is that I spend so much time in other directions as well, engaging with corporate sponsors, faculty, our parent university, that were I to devote too much time to the admissions process I would be neglecting some other important responsibility.

CA: Does Darden place particular focus on the partners its students may bring with them?

BB: We have a big focus on partners, and it is quite consistent with our ethic of close collaboration and strong community. We have a very strong Darden Partners Association, and we actively work to assist partners in employment. It is more challenging to find employment, particularly if you have a very high level of expertise, with central Virginia being, well, smaller. This needs to be part of the application calculus for any prospective applicant. If you have a partner, it is important from the get-go to think about what the partner’s experience will be over those two years. And if the partner needs employment, that should be on the radar from the very start. But our Darden Partners Association works very hard to boost and sustain and support partners.

For students who are part of a family, not just a pair – so where there are children present – Charlottesville is really an outstanding place. Because of the strong influence of the University of Virginia there is a deep sense of a community of trust. It is a safe community, it is beautiful, you don’t spend hours getting from Point A to Point B. But there are also real stores with lots of interesting goods in them, all the requisite services. We are close to Richmond, VA, about an hour away, which is a city of about half a million people. And then Washington, DC, is two hours away. Some partnerships divide their time and live in the middle between Washington, DC, and Charlottesville. So it’s not impossible by any means.

CA: Some schools are trending away from essays as part of the application process or are looking for ways of getting a more candid, unedited view of students a part of the admissions process. Where does Darden fall in that?

BB: We now rely on one essay. We are still looking for a demonstration of an applicant’s written communication skill because we still think that’s important. Even though in the digital age with tweets of 140 characters what passes for written communication can be pretty, shall we say, casual.

Interviews matter a whole lot to us, for many reasons. Not least of which is that from our international students we are looking for a clear demonstration of mastery of English and indeed Americanized English. Our case discussions go rapidly – the international students who thrive at Darden are those fluent enough to catch humor, irony and emotion and to be able to respond fluidly to the give and take of the discussion.

Letters of recommendation still matter to us. The quality of the letter and the familiarity of the writer with the applicant are highly influential. Too many letters of recommendation are shallow. “I am the CEO of the corporation, Johnny or Susie has been employed with us for four years,” and then just banalities… “He or she showed up at 8:30 a.m. Isn’t that nice…” That’s not good enough. Applicants should look for recommenders who will say something authentic and substantive. The best observations are based on personal direct familiarity rather than second- or third-hand reports.

CA: What haven’t we touched on that you want to share with Clear Admit’s readers?

BB: I would offer a few comments about our executive format programs. We have an executive MBA (EMBA) and a global executive MBA (GEMBA). They are both hybrid programs in that a material percentage – 33 to 40 percent – of the program is online, either synchronous or asynchronous, and the balance is in person. Our EMBA is seven years old and our GEMBA is going on three years old. Our EMBA was just ranked 11th – by US News, I think.

These programs are aimed at people who want to remain in the workforce not just because they want to get a steady paycheck but typically because they are in positions of such responsibility that they want to keep contributing to their organization and retain the career momentum that they have with that organization.

What we hear is that the hybrid structure works extremely well, which is a big learning for us because we are known for case method teaching, for our strong faculty, for face-to-face engagement, for strong community. And it may not seem obvious at first that we can obtain those same outcomes in the hybrid structure as we do in the full-time program, but we do. So I am seeing student evaluation averages that equal or exceed what we see in the full-time program.

The EMBA has one international residency – all the rest of the residencies are in Charlottesville. The GEMBA has an outstanding difference in that the face-to-face experiences are conducted in six residencies. They start in Charlottesville and Washington in one two-week experience. Students then take classes online, then we bring them together again, say to China, then more online, then to Brazil, India, Europe (France usually) and then we bring them back to the U.S. It is a full-time program, 21 months. The global program is especially aimed at executives who have awakened to the fact that their futures hinge tremendously on cross borders activity. We are delighted with the response, both the rankings and the student evaluations.

I would conclude by reemphasizing that what makes Darden different in all three programs – full-time, EMBA and GEMBA – is the way we teach, which is heavily and highly engaging. This isn’t passive learning by any stretch. This is rolling up your sleeves and sorting out the problems and puzzling your way through to a set of recommendations.

Second, it’s the faculty. Our faculty are experts in a wide variety of fields, and they care immensely about excellent teaching.

The third is community – the bonding that takes place. And that’s because we are in Charlottesville, we are a smaller program, and we intentionally aim to produce a culture of collaboration and mutual learning. I think these are huge distinctions in the field of MBA education.

I have deep respect for all of our peer schools, and I don’t mean to imply that what they offer is less worthy. But what the world is telling us is – both in terms of the sheer volume of applicants and the quality of the applicant pool, as well as the companies who come to recruit at the school – is that they like what they see and they want to work with us.

CA: So being in Charlottesville hasn’t presented a challenge in terms of recruiting?

BB: Last year we had about 130 companies visiting our grounds. Given the size of our student body, that is a lot. Plus we are very active in helping students engage in off-grounds recruiting through digital media – Skype and other platforms – as well as with treks. We organize large-group travel experiences to Silicon Valley, New York City, China, India, Europe.

I think something we are good at is helping students prepare for the recruiting experience. When I was an MBA student – which is a long time ago – the recruiting experience was mainly one of “Figure it out for yourself, send off a lot of letters to see if you can get on a list to interview…” Today we train students very actively in shaping their own career development exploration, search process, recruitment process. We have a very active career development center that invites students in, works with them, coaches them through the entire year. And this has led to a high placement rates in the past few years, I am proud to say.

I am a faculty member – I don’t want to believe that the only reason students come to business school is to get a job. I believe they come to business school to get an education, which leads to a job. But we are a professional school, and part of preparing MBAs for the profession they are entering is to help them understand that over the course of their entire career they may have a dozen different employers. The process we take them through is one grand rehearsal for what they may experience again and again throughout their careers.