February 21, 2010 10:35 pm

The bigger picture

 
Peter Henry Blair

Peter Blair Henry: ‘Business is one of the most powerful institutions on earth’

One thing Peter Blair Henry, Stern School of Business’s new dean, admits he’ll have trouble in adapting to in his move from California to Manhattan, is the weather.

But then, as the Jamaican-born academic puts it: “Everywhere outside of the 18th parallel is cold to me.” Yet if Prof Henry’s roots as an “immigrant kid from Jamaica” cause him to feel the cold, they have also shaped his outlook – one that is resolutely international.

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“Because I come from a place like Jamaica, which is a small, open economy, I viscerally get the importance of the global economy,” says Prof Henry, who took up his post at New York University’s Stern in January.

“My research in the past dozen years has been about policies for emerging economies – and emerging economies are now in fact becoming more and more the world economy.”

A glance through the list of his recent publications gives some idea of this focus, with articles ranging from global financial instability and financial liberalisation in emerging markets to whether debt relief or aid better serves poor countries.

Prof Henry’s most recent position at Stanford Graduate School of Business – as professor of international economics and associate director of the Centre for Global Business and the Economy – reflects the international focus of his work and interests.

Moreover, he has had occasion to deploy his knowledge and experience in several governmental advisory roles. He has been an economic advisor to Caribbean and African central bank governors and more recently, served on the Obama transition team, reviewing international lending institutions such as the World Bank
and International Monetary Fund.

His arrival at Stern comes in the wake of the work done by his predecessor, Thomas Cooley, in building up Stern’s capabilities as a research-oriented institution. It also coincides with a broadening of the school’s traditional prowess in finance to encompass developments in the broader economy.

“He’ll bring a new focus that’s more global to the school,” says Prof Cooley, a professor of macroeconomics and international economy. “He brings something that’s a little different.”

This includes sporting prowess. While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1990s, Prof Henry was awarded a Full Blue in basketball and at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, he was a finalist in the 1991 basketball slam-dunk competition.

But if the new dean can please crowds with his athletic basketball shots, he seems equally likely to prove a winner with MBA students, who these days are clamouring for more course content on the role of business in reducing world poverty and the ways in which globalisation can benefit poor countries – research subjects on which Prof Henry has long been engaged.

“Business is one of the most powerful institutions on earth for creating wealth and opportunity and helping to lift people out of poverty,” he says. “When you think about it that way, then business is not separate from development policy.”

It is an approach whose relevance has been heightened by the global financial crisis, which exposed the increasing interdependence of the world’s economies. “We’re at an incredibly interesting time in global business,” says Prof Henry. “Capitalism has come under question and countries are questioning the best way to move forward.”

Management education institutions, he argues, can play a critical role in answering such questions by fostering discussions between corporations, development institutions and policymakers. “Business schools need to be at the forefront of this,” he says.

He also believes schools should reflect the increasingly blurred lines between those who work in the corporate world and those who are in government or part of the global development community. “We should think about recruiting more students who are going to go off and become policymakers,” he says.

Like his predecessor, the new dean also believes schools should act as commentators. Stern has already established a strong position in this respect, partly through the prominent commentary of Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at the school.

Prof Henry wants to take this approach further. “To some extent business schools have been too narrow a part of the conversation,” he says. “What I’d like to see is for Stern to play a bigger role and to become an international hub and convening place for conversations between business, government and society.”

His first faculty appointment underlines this approach. Nobel laureate Michael Spence, currently professor of management at Stanford and chairman of the Commission on Growth and Development, which focuses on growth and poverty reduction in developing countries, will join Stern’s faculty in September.

Both Prof Henry’s parents were scientists and the dean says he has inherited an ability to approach facts with a dispassionate eye – a quality he believes makes him an appropriate champion for this mission.

Moreover, as the third of four children, he believes he is a natural peacemaker. “I’m generally slow to anger, quick to forgive and I take in information before making decisions. So no matter how controversial the decision, my general demeanour is to put on white lab coat and gloves and look at the evidence, weigh the arguments and see what makes sense.”

But he accepts that his move from the “quiet life of a scholar” to dean of a leading business school will present challenges, particularly for a researcher, where every last detail of a paper, article or book chapter is the author’s responsibility.

“As dean the buck stops with me, but you have to relinquish lots of control because you have to rely on lots of people,” he says. “So for me it will be a challenge to take a more macro approach to things and get less involved in the details.”

At the same time, his move to New York means he and his wife and four children will be making a lifestyle shift.

“As an economist I’m aware that life is full of trade offs. And we’ll be trading off a beautiful backyard and sunshine for the excitement of intellectual activity that is Manhattan ... we’re really excited about that.”

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