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The governance model of French business schools is in need of drastic overhaul.
In many such schools in France today “top-down management” is still the rule: chambers of commerce and industry presidents appoint deans who are thus accountable only to these presidents and to the boards of directors staffed with business executives; in turn deans then appoint programme and support directors who are accountable only to the deans.
Recently some French business schools have witnessed the emergence of “senate faculties”, while others have seen the election of associate deans of academy or research. However, in most establishments, deans’ decisions override any other. “Corporalism” (Napoleon was nicknamed “the little corporal”) remains the name of the game, a game that is heartily embraced by those deans who prefer to rule with as few checks and balances as possible.
Under such a game the role of the teaching faculty is often reduced to spectating on pedagogical and research decisions imposed from above, while students realise, sometimes too late, that well-marketed programmes may not measure up to their academic or professional promises. Meanwhile, local governments’ expectations of a business school often include the school’s visible contribution to the creation of local sustainable activity rather than its contribution to the globalisation process.
The Anglo-Saxon “shared governance” principle – whereby structures and processes allow teaching faculty, professional staff, administration, governing boards and sometimes students to participate in the creation of a school’s policies and its decision-making – is not favoured. Although there have been calls recently in France to involve teaching faculty in the governance of the country’s schools, that call has not been widely relayed.
Furthermore, experience demonstrates that even the best rules and processes depend on the qualities of the people named or elected in decision-making positions. A spate of serious crises with renowned US university presidents – John Sexton at NYU and Larry Summers at Harvard both experienced votes of no confidence – illustrates the potential shortcomings of “shared governance”.
The governance and management of business schools, both in France and elsewhere in the world, is ripe for change.
To help French business school deans (and others) avoid the “dean’s disease” – whereby they isolate themselves from dissenting voices – and prevent the kind of internal crises that have bedevilled business schools in Europe in recent years, board membership needs to be broadened. School boards should consist of other stakeholders, including teaching faculty, staff, students, alumni, employers and members of local governments.
Many schools have made corporate social responsibility or globally responsible leadership a central aspect of their communication and educational policies, but a closer look at their own managerial and leadership structures reveals that by shutting out important stakeholders and performance assessment from the governance process, they are not in fact “walking the talk”.
There should be a systematic assessment of a dean’s record by these stakeholders, a process that some US universities have already adopted. As well as an annual appraisal of a dean’s performance, department chairs and programmes should also be evaluated, with teaching faculty, staff and students providing feedback. As a result, the “mandate for leadership” of business schools’ top management would be reviewed regularly and submitted to the scrutiny of all stakeholders.
In an uncertain global economic setting, the role of business school deans is fundamental in steering their institutions towards innovative managerial educational content and methods, so that the schools can tackle the magnitude of the societal problems at hand.
Let us ensure that deans’ leadership and management are up to that task, and let us help them in France – and the rest of Europe – by making them regularly accountable for the responsible completion of their missions.
The author is a senior professor at Kedge Business School.