The first thing that greets you when you approach the dean’s house at Insead business school in Fontainebleau is the name on the tall green gate: “famille Jain”. When Dipak Jain took up the post just a year ago, it was a massive upheaval for his family as well as for himself. After more than 30 years in the US, the Indian-born dean is now living and working on a third continent with his wife and younger daughter.
Although positioned between two very busy roads, the house stands in sharp contrast to the technicalities of budgets and academic research that constitute the life of a business school dean. Commissioned in 1925 by the landscape artist Paul Tavernier, and built by renowned architect of the day Jules Viatte, the three-storey house is characterful and distinctive. Delicate pastel murals of French and Italian landscapes decorate the tall central vestibule and, on the sunny day when I visited, sunlight streamed through the ground-floor rooms that overlook a lawned garden.
Tavernier had the house built for his mother, who lived in Paris and who loved Fontainebleau, around 60km south of the French capital. Tavernier’s own pink-walled house is just visible at the bottom of the garden. Insead bought the property in 2000 from a descendant of the Tavernier family, and until 2006 the house was extensively renovated, including substantial work on the murals that rise from the ground to the ceiling two floors above.
There are three reception rooms, seven bedrooms and an office – too many rooms for the family, says Jain, 54. “There is a whole floor [the first floor] that we don’t use.” Insead is one of the few business schools to offer a dean’s house with the job (others include Harvard Business School and London Business School) and Jain is just the second dean to live in the Tavernier house.
He suggests we conduct the interview in either the double-aspect sitting room, with its grey-blue walls and comfortable sofas, or the formal dining room, with its large table redolent of a corporate boardroom. Jain family photos sit on the sideboard in the dining room, including one of Jain and his wife with former US president Bill Clinton, taken in 2006 at the Kellogg school at Northwestern University near Chicago, where he was dean.
In the end we sit in the kitchen, perched on high chairs round the central island, eating Indian snacks and strawberries, and drinking milky spiced tea. He says that this is where he usually sits when he comes home in the evening for dinner.
It is something he would like to do much more of. The most time-consuming part of his job is a punishing travel schedule – the penalty professors have to pay for working for a business school with three campuses: in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore. “My time clock is US to Singapore, which is 14 hours. Sometimes I go to Singapore for just one day. I live on the plane.”
In his second year at Insead, Jain plans to cut back on travel while spending longer on the campus in Singapore, which should, in the long term, allow him more time at home in Fontainebleau.
The house is very different from the modern brick townhouse in Evanston, Illinois, where the Jain family lived for 22 years when Jain worked at the Kellogg school. But the two houses do have one thing in common: both are a five-minute walk from campus.
In spite of living in the US for 30 years, Jain admits that he has never learnt to drive. During the four years he was studying for his PhD at the University of Texas, he got round the problem by offering to help his fellow students with the more technical elements of their studies in return for a ride home.
His appointment as dean of Insead, which is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top business schools, was almost as complex. “I committed to one interview and I had to meet 43 people,” he laughs. “The more I interviewed the more I got a view of the school. It has a unique culture, so different, I jokingly say that every section of the [MBA] class is like the United Nations.”
On first contact with the governors at Insead, Jain felt things did not go well. In fact, he felt they were looking for a European to head the school. But the professors there took a different view. Insead is set up as an association rather than a not-for-profit or charity, like most universities and business schools. That means that the search committee for the new dean has to make its recommendations to the faculty, for their approval.
Then, the faculty recommend the candidate to the board of governors, who makes the appointment. In the end, 80 per cent of Insead’s 144 faculty members voted for Jain, the remaining 20 per cent objecting to not having multiple candidates to choose between, says the dean.
The photographer gone, Jain takes off his tie, leans back in his chair, and tells the story of how he rose from being a schoolboy in Assam, northeast India, to being one of the world’s top business academics.
“My father wanted me to be a civil servant but I always thought to go into education,” he begins.
When he was growing up in Assam, his mother woke him and his four siblings every morning at 4am. For the next two hours they did their homework, drinking tea and eating crackers. If they did their homework in the morning for two hours, she said, they could do what they liked for the rest of the day.
Jain went to a Hindu middle school and then on to college in Assam, followed by study at Gauhati University. Equipped with a degree in mathematics and statistics he was offered a university teaching job in 1980, and soon started teaching statistics and operations in the business school. It was there he heard about the International Teacher’s Programme, which is designed to train university lecturers. There was an upcoming session in Stockholm, so he applied to the programme and was accepted, which posed a further problem: how to pay for it. “My salary was only $70 a month,” he says.
The programme offered him a scholarship and in 1982 he left India for the first time. While in Stockholm he took the advice of the experienced professors there and decided to study for his PhD in the US and to focus on marketing. So his course to Dallas was set.
Growing up in India, Prof Jain learnt to speak three languages: Assamese, English and Hindi. Does he also speak French? “On a scale of one to 10? Minus three.” Nor does he plan to learn. “I am who I am. If you believe in yourself, who you are, then people have more respect for you. People respect people who are genuine.”
Della Bradshaw is the FT’s business education editor
Dipak Jain says he largely eschews possessions: “I have a very simple lifestyle.” Indeed, with the exception of some Indian paintings and books, there are few personal objects in the reception areas of the house. When pressed to name a favourite thing he suggests a small gilded statue of the Indian elephant god Ganesha would be appropriate. The Hindu elephant deity is a unifying force in Hinduism, and denotes wisdom. Ganesha is also the god that Hindus worship when they start a new venture. “He is there to point you in the right direction,” says Jain, who belongs to the ancient Jain religion. He describes Jainism as being a philosophy as much as a religion, the principle tenet of which is non-violence. “When people come to my office and they are angry, I say I won’t speak then but will speak the following day.”