Against the tide of mergers that has characterised the French business school market, Frank Vidal is charting a different course. With unassuming candour, he says that Audencia Nantes School of Management will succeed independently.
The dean makes his scepticism about the recent trend for consolidation among French schools clear. “I do not believe that these mergers will deliver value,” he says, adding that he sees “hubris” rather than logic driving the trend.
Prof Vidal – who appears as much a businessman as an academic – is no stranger to mergers, however. In his previous deanship, he engineered the merger of Advancia with a fellow Paris business school to become Novancia. He jokes that the similarity in names proved confusing upon his arrival as Audencia’s dean in January 2011.
It is organic growth, rather than acquisition, that Prof Vidal is pursuing for the Nantes school, preferring to “invest in its engine” – the faculty. “We do not want to be big, but to be good,” he says.
That involves higher quality research with “more impact”, so Prof Vidal is creating 40 academic positions by 2014 to add to the existing 70 full-time professors. In particular he wants to build upon the school’s strong reputation in the field of corporate social responsibility.
In 2007, Audencia was one of the first institutions in the world to sign the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Management Education. From September, it will be part of a global network of 25 “champion” institutions encouraging the implementation of the principles.
The importance that the school – which also partners with the World Wildlife Fund – attaches to CSR is reflected in the relaunch of its MBA programme in autumn as an MBA in responsible management. “We have to act as though business schools are in part responsible for the crisis of our time,” Prof Vidal says.
Audencia’s identification with its home city is also emphasised by the dean. “We are from Nantes and proud of it, he says. “It is an important part of our mission to make this region more attractive to the world.”
Although Nantes is a little over two hours on the high-speed TGV railway from Paris, the city does have its advantages, says Prof Vidal. It is an attractive city in which to study and its regional monopoly affords Audencia a large catchment of corporate clients, he claims.
The dean also inherited a strong partnership with the neighbouring engineering school, Centrale Nantes, with whom faculty and students are shared. To increase collaboration between disciplines, Prof Vidal has strengthened ties with other academic institutions, including the city’s school of design. “People in Nantes wanted me to forge new strategic paths and alliances, and to be imaginative with the limited resources available,” he says.
Work with the design school has delivered one of two specialised masters degrees to be launched in September at Audencia’s Paris office on the 25th floor of the Tour Montparnasse. The investment in Paris reflects Prof Vidal’s aim to increase Audencia’s executive education business. There are plans, he says, to also open an executive education office in French-speaking Morocco to build a presence in north Africa.
Despite the breadth of Audencia’s network of partner universities across other regions, Prof Vidal concedes that Africa remains relatively uncharted territory. European schools still do not know how to engage successfully with the continent, he says.
The dean is visibly proud that Audencia was the first business school in France to make study abroad a compulsory part of its grand école programme. Each student on the masters in management degree spends at least one semester at one of Audencia’s 120 partners.
The experience is much richer, Prof Vidal asserts, when international study is conducted in partnership with local institutions, as opposed to satellite campuses. “We do not believe it is serious to simply send students to a campus abroad.”
Out of hours
Frank Vidal, dean of Audencia Nantes School of Management, lists some of his favourite places, things and activities.
1. Animal: horse
2. City: Rome
3. Holiday destination: everywhere
4. Artist: Caravaggio
5. Musician: Paolo Fresu, the Italian jazz player
6. Talent wish list: To be a singer
7. Alternative career: Musician – I play the trumpet