There is something characteristically Belgian about Marion Debruyne. This is not just because the newly appointed dean of Vlerick Business School is multilingual, speaking perfect English as well as her native Flemish, nor because she has the really international outlook that is critical for success in a country with just 11m people — she spent many years teaching in the US, at Wharton, Kellogg and Emory University in Atlanta.
It is because Prof Debruyne, one of the few female academics to claim the dean’s office at a world-class business school, is singularly modest about the achievement. “I don’t know that being a woman is relevant these days,” she says. “I would have hoped to have got past that.”
What is more, she was made dean at the age of 42, a good decade or two younger than most of her male counterparts.
Though outwardly these achievements mean little to Prof Debruyne, she is well aware that she has become the dean at an auspicious moment for business schools. Change, she says, is in the air and business schools are no more protected from the march of globalisation and technology than business itself. “I think we’re only just seeing the beginning. We fundamentally have to ask ourselves the question: ‘What is our role?’”
Though she has only been dean at Vlerick since August, she has thought deeply about the issue and knows that the industry has to change. “I won’t claim I have the crystal ball after a few weeks in the dean’s seat, but all of us should ask ourselves what is the value of what we bring. We need to go from teaching to learning,” she says. “The way I see it, we were largely in a supply-driven market, and we’re moving to a demand-driven market.”
It is a transition that is easier to talk about than implement, but she believes Vlerick has already started down this route. “At Vlerick I see a lot of enthusiasm for participant-centred learning,” she says, citing the example of the entrepreneurial boot camp for masters students, where they are coached by entrepreneurs with professors standing back and playing a facilitating role.
“It used to be the case that business schools had to attract the best-of-breed faculty and give them great research facilities,” she says. “Now it is more that the participants are in the driving seat.”
The message may not be one that appeals to many traditional business school professors. But then, Vlerick is a business school that does not operate like most others. The most senior group of its 50 academics are designated “partnership professors”.
“It reflects the idea of being a partner in a law firm or consultancy,” explains Prof Debruyne. “We call them institution builders rather than career builders. We are all part of the success of the school.”
The partnership model is one that Prof Debruyne has no plans to change. “I like the idea of having a group of people who say ‘my commitment is to the organisation’,” she says. “It’s a set of people who are prepared to go the extra mile for the school.”
One of their first challenges under the new dean will be to help grow the school, says Prof Debruyne. “You have to have a certain scale to invest in renewal,” she points out. “If you’re located in one of the smaller countries in Europe, your home market is not enough, being international is a given. Are we there yet? No.”
The school has three campuses, but all are in Belgium — Brussels, Ghent and Leuven. (Vlerick is the business school of two Belgian institutions, the universities of Leuven and Ghent.)
Its biggest overseas venture has been its partnership with Peking University to jointly teach the BiMBA programme — all students on the programme get a Vlerick MBA. The partnership is one that Prof Debruyne hopes to replicate. “It is one of my priorities to internationalise much more through collaboration.
“I don’t think we are the first to come to that insight,” she smiles.
Though a small school, by European standards Vlerick has a sizeable endowment, of €50m. Nonetheless, half the school’s income is earned through executive short course teaching and collaborative research. Prof Debruyne is planning to do more of this with research and teaching strengths in three industries, energy, financial services and healthcare. In doing so, the school will be building on its location at the administrative heart of the EU, says Prof Debruyne. “All three [industries] have regulatory aspects to them.”
Before her appointment as dean, Prof Debruyne had been at Vlerick for 10 years teaching marketing. Her appointment was a bit of a homecoming. Twenty years ago she was a student at Vlerick, studying for a masters in marketing degree.
“I had an engineering background, but I knew it was not what I wanted to do,” she says. “For me it was a transforming experience.”
She is clearly hoping to succeed in bringing a similar transformation to the business school itself.