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James Dean has a reputation as one of the nice men of business education. It would be hard to confuse this quietly spoken and affable man with the image of a bike-riding rebel conjured up by his movie star namesake.

But although leather jackets may not be his style, Prof Dean has reached the top in his own profession. He was appointed dean of the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina in August 2008, after 12 years working for the business school.

Prof Dean acknowledges that his plans for the school owe much to his predecessor, Steve Jones. Like him, Prof Dean, 53, believes the Chapel Hill business school has to be one of the top business schools in teaching leadership.

“We’ve seen some fairly massive failures in leadership,” he says of the economic situation. “If the financial crisis has taught us nothing else, it is that people in the financial industry need leadership.”

He acknowledges that leadership is a phrase bandied around in almost every business school. “I know this is what a lot of deans talk about,” he says. “But when you actually look at what’s being done, there is surprisingly little.”

With a dry sense of humour – only someone fond of irony would use the name deandean for an e-mail address – Prof Dean says a lot of his views on leadership come from working with corporate executives.

But as a former dean for executive education and for the MBA programme, he has also been closely involved in training some of America’s top
military leaders – all the US admirals are trained at Kenan-Flagler. The school has also recently begun working with West Point, the US military academy.

Unlike most deans, though, Prof Dean is not dogmatic about leadership. “No one will answer the question ‘What is leadership?’ It’s like what is goodness or truth,” he says.

That did not stop him writing a white paper on leadership. “I’m an academic – but it is only a short white paper.” And, he points out, the two-page document centres on the kind of leaders the business school hopes to develop, rather that trying to define leadership.

Since taking over the top job, Prof Dean has charged his programme directors to develop leadership teaching, and the flagship elective is now the leadership immersion programme (see right). The school does not have the resources to make the programme compulsory for all 280 students, he says, but all Kenan-Flagler MBA students will get “360 degree feedback” as part of their personal development at the school.

The dean believes the leadership message is getting through to potential students. “Students are telling us that they are coming to us because of our focus on leadership.”

As Prof Dean acknowledges wryly, 2008 was a bad year to become a business school dean. “The timing could hardly have been worse,” he says. “One of the challenges this time is that no one knew where the bottom was. Everyone is in wait-and-see mode.”

Prof Dean himself is no exception. He is hoping that when the MBA students, now on company internships, return to business school in the autumn, many of them will already have job offers in the bag. “Historically firms made offers from internships and this will be a leading indicator,” he says.

As for MBA recruitment this year, this has been hard for all schools, he says. “New York has been really, really difficult.”

As well as the problems inherent in getting jobs for MBAs, the US recession has created other issues for Prof Dean. “How do we run the school with fewer resources?” he asks. At its height in June 2008,
Kenan-Flagler’s endowment was worth more than $158m; by March 2009 it had dropped to less than $117m.

Cost-cutting has been implemented across the board from the dean’s office downwards. “I am not going to lay someone
off so that I can fly business class to China.”

But the crisis has also put under the spotlight what the business school teaches. There will be changes in the way finance is taught, says Prof Dean. “Risk management will be more important. Every course will be affected.”

There will also be additional courses in the relationship between government and business. “In America there is an unprecedented involvement of government in business,” he says. “We are seeing the kinds of things we have not seen in a generation.” Corporate governance and leadership will also be issues, he says.

Nonetheless, Prof Dean does not believe there will be any structural changes in the way business schools operate. “After 9/11 nobody travelled,” he points out. “A year later everyone was travelling.”

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