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A decade ago, it was the fashion for US business schools to appoint a business leader, rather than an academic, as dean: few lasted the course. At Boston University, however, former Ford manager Louis Lataif has been dean of the school of management for the past 14 years. This, he quips, is probably 12 years longer than even the most optimistic faculty member gave him at the time.
The faculty, he says wryly, were glad to get him because they also got a new building as part of the package – at the time it claimed to be the largest ever construction project for a business school. They were probably less impressed when, on his first day in the job, he announced he was launching a curriculum review on the basis that what was being taught then was wrong.
“If you think about what a PhD is, you become ever narrower,” he argues. “Your dissertation finely makes you an expert on some small, little thing.” This is not particularly helpful for MBA or undergraduate business students, he believes – Boston University has both.
“We need to teach people to do things holistically . . . Part of the problem of education is who the suppliers are.”
Given his forthright views on the subject of management education, some might be surprised to learn that Mr Lataif, now 66 years old, survived so long as dean of the school. But these days his philosophy of management education, once radical, is becoming increasingly mainstream. Indeed, it is so widely supported within the school and has created such wide interest outside it, that Boston University is running programmes for other business schools on how to change the way they teach. Last month the school hosted its third conference for other schools wanting to teach the Boston way.
At the heart or Mr Lataif’s philosophy is that management teaching should fuse the arts, sciences and business, that faculty from different disciplines should teach programmes together and that the school building should be used to develop this regime rather than hinder it.
“I do think physical space changes behaviour,” says Mr Lataif. Because of this he was instrumental in redesigning the plans for the business school when he took the dean’s job, discarding the previous architect’s drawings in order to build a school where all the rooms look inward, facing each other across a central well.
When rooms in the new building were allocated, faculty were not allowed to form departmental silos; all had to mix.
These days the dean’s views are the stuff of popular business school debate but though many accept his arguments, few have implemented them, he believes.
“Since I was a student 40 years ago the word cross-functional has been used. But who is actually doing it?”
To do it you have to start with a core of believers, he says. “They do course A and get excited. Then more of them develop course B. You have to start somewhere and then develop it.” When new faculty are appointed they are “believers”, he says.
Like many, he is not convinced that the tenure track system that dominates US management education is conducive to such changes.
“If you’re a tenure track professor, the question is: ‘What’s in it for you?’ [As a dean] you have to create incentives.”
One incentive practised at Boston is to give 1.5 or two course credits for a single course taught with faculty from other disciplines, he says.
Mr Lataif has long-believed that the most effective chief executives have been trained as scientists and so think differently from other managers. This is something he wanted to replicate at Boston.
“Business school minds think vertically; scientists think horizontally,” he as-serts. “Business schools fall far short of wiring our minds to become great leaders.”
All of which led to a new style MBA, the MBA-MSc. The school launched its MS-MBA in 2001, a dual degree that teaches technology as well as management.
“I think what we are really about is the next generation MBA . . . How work is done today is immeasurably different to what it was 10 years ago,” says Mr Lataif. “If we can create people who do this work better we all win. Technology is how we are doing it these days.”
Years of professional management taught Mr Lataif that an understanding of technology was critical to good management in the 21st century.
“Tomorrow’s leaders need to understand technology in the same way as today’s understand accounting and finance,” he believes.
But the school has been having a hard time persuading the uninitiated that the programme is for more than just the average techie. “Students are less convinced than recruiters,” he says.
The aim of the course, he continues, “is to turn out first-rate general managers”, but many still need convincing.
For a man with such a strong business background, it is perhaps surprising that Mr Lataif should give up a 27-year career in the Ford motor company – most latterly as president of Ford of Europe – to become a business school dean at all.
As the son of a Lebanese immigrant – his father was in the rug business – education was highly valued. Mr Lataif earned his undergraduate degree from Boston University and an MBA from Harvard, before eventually returning to his alma mater.
“I thought there was nothing more noble than to be involved in training the next generation of minds,” he says.
Training the sort of MBA graduates whom recruiters want to employ may not be so noble, but it is certainly getting him and his school noticed.