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Born in the US, but a fluent French speaker. Raised in Alaska, but based for 24 years in Brussels. Of British ancestry, but with dual French-US nationality. It is a biography that would be rare for any business school dean, but is perhaps particularly so for one in the US.
It also probably explains why Scott Beardsley, former senior partner at McKinsey, who became dean of the Darden school at the University of Virginia in August, frequently refers to himself as a “European dean”.
Partly ironic he may be, but it is not only his international perspective that makes Prof Beardsley rare among US business schools deans.
Low key and thoughtful, Prof Beardsley describes his move from Belgium to Virginia as a “bit of serendipity”. In reality, he planned his change of career from management consultant to business academic with meticulous intent.
It was his responsibility at McKinsey in Brussels to head up the learning and development functions worldwide, alongside his work with clients. “I began to think that this is something I would like to do full-time,” he says. “I wanted to make an explicit set of choices in my life. I realised I wanted to help people achieve their top potential.”
He therefore pursued an executive doctoral degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on non-traditional leaders in higher education — something he hoped himself to become. With an MBA from MIT Sloan and 26 years’ management consultancy experience at McKinsey, he says: “I just thought I’d like to have another chapter.”
Darden’s search for a dean was, as with all academic institutions, a protracted one — some 15 months from initial contact to the new dean’s arrival. Professors at the school were keen to quiz him above all on how someone from a professional services firm, rather than a tenure-track academic, could run a world-class business school. “All the faculty had the chance to interview me,” he explains. The process culminated in a face-to-face meeting in one of the school’s impressive auditoriums. “It was 70-something of them and me in the hot seat. In the US, faculty effectively have a veto over any dean.”
He clearly passed muster, and that may have been precisely because of his experience as an international consultant. “At any given time a school has a specific context,” he points out. His appointment, he believes, “was probably [because of] the desire [of Darden’s professors] to go global and to be close to practice.”
Though the assessment period was protracted, Prof Beardsley’s move from Belgium to the US was rapid. “My belongings arrived July 31, I began August 1,” he relates. His dog was not so lucky: travel restrictions mean his golden retriever will only be able to travel to the US this month.
This aside, he has little negative to say about the move. “The weather is definitely on the positive side,” he smiles. Brussels is north of Montreal, he points out, whereas Charlottesville is on the same latitude as Gibraltar.
The move has also given him the opportunity to live at the heart of a World Heritage Site. His home is in one of the pavilions that make up the “academical village” that was founder Thomas Jefferson’s original plan for the university and was recognised by Unesco in 1987.
Some 200 years after Jefferson made his academic and architectural aspirations a reality, students and teachers still live together, with students attending classes on the ground floor of the professors’ homes. Jefferson’s aim was to bring teachers and students together, says Prof Beardsley, to “pursue the life of the mind”.
He now lives with a group of five students on one side and five on the other. “I’ve had students over for breakfast, I’ve had them over for dinner,” he reports, even though he has only been in the job for a couple of months.
Although the university is steeped in tradition, the new dean believes it is always looking forward, citing its teaching methods. “We use the Socratic case method and believe very strongly in that,” says Prof Beardsley. Nevertheless, the school has been experimenting widely with technology-enhanced learning and online delivery. This has included the development of Moocs, the massive open online courses that attract thousands of students at a time.
Technology is a tool that can really help globalise the school, says the dean, connecting students from around the world. “I think new business models are going to emerge,” he adds.
Prof Beardsley believes there are clear advantages to combining classroom teaching and online experiences — often referred to as blended learning. It is something Darden does in both its MBA and its executive MBA programmes.
The business school has also been co-operating with other university departments in teaching joint degrees in law, medicine and public policy, for example. Prof Beardsley reports that he has already been talking to the dean of the undergraduate business school with a view to increasing collaboration.
Although the university is in Charlottesville, a town with a population of less than 50,000, Darden is looking further afield for its activities. Many of them are in Washington DC, two hours away. Prof Beardsley dismisses the distance: “Washington DC is our back yard. When Jefferson was president he used to ride to Washington DC and back on his horse.”