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When Jim Bradford quit as president and chief executive of the United Glass Corporation in 2001, he planned to ride his bicycle round the world and do a bit of teaching. One thing that was not in the plan was to become dean of a business school.
So, how did this quietly-spoken 57-year-old become dean of the Owen school of business at Vanderbilt University in Nashville?
It all started with the proposed bit of teaching explains Prof Bradford, wryly. In the winter of 2002 he joined the professorial staff at the Owen school to teach a few classes. By June 2004 the university decided to promote him to acting dean. From there it was but a small step to being appointed dean in March 2005.
Having been the big boss at two of the world’s largest flat glass manufacturers – they are the ones that make windowpanes for everything from the smallest apartment to the largest industrial unit – being a dean of a relatively small business school might seem like a bit of a breeze. Prof Bradford thought so. Having worked with more than 250 companies around the world, a few students and professors would surely be a pushover.
But easy it is not, says Prof Bradford in his engagingly humorous banter.
“I have 500 students, 50 faculty. How hard could it be? It’s REALLY hard. You’re really not a boss, you’re really not in charge.”
In charge or not, change is afoot at the Owen school. Although only six months in the job, Prof Bradford has been instrumental in shaping and launching several programmes for the school.
He has also spent a lot of time promoting it to the outside world. “We spent a lot of time concentrating on the message and on getting the message out,” he says. This message, he says, is that management education is a lifelong process and that MBA programmes do best when they teach frameworks, not facts.
His efforts seem to be paying off. While most US business schools are reporting a downturn in applications for their full-time MBA programmes, Vanderbilt saw applications rise this year by 35 per cent.
As a company man through and through, at the heart of his approach has been an investigation into what corporations actually want from MBA programmes.
Because of the high cost of employing an MBA graduate, corporations want that person to have an immediate impact on the business, rather than requiring additional training, he argues. “General management skills are important but there is a degree of specialisation needed.”
His research with local pharmaceutical companies told him that they were reluctant to employ MBAs because unless they were employed directly in finance or marketing, they could not apply their skills for up to two years while they learnt about the business.
So the Owen school has launched a healthcare MBA this autumn, in conjunction with Vanderbilt University Medical Centre and local healthcare companies.
Nashville has become one of the healthcare centres of the US, with 19 publicly-traded healthcare companies in the region, says Prof Bradford.
From the outset, students on the programme will be working on the frontline of the healthcare industry – working 12-hour shifts on trauma wards for example. On top of that, students will have to study on the “regular” MBA programme.
The healthcare track will add an additional string to the Owen school’s bow, as the school is traditionally strong in finance – many Vanderbilt graduates have moved into the finance sector after graduation. By playing on its faculty strength in finance Vanderbilt has also this year announced a nine-month masters in finance degree, which will be launched in 2006.
The degree is designed for recent graduates who want to learn about the ins and outs of quantitative financial analysis before they get their first job.
In a further attempt to bring management education to a younger generation, this summer Prof Bradford ran a boot camp for 53 undergraduate students, largely from Vanderbilt University, to prepare them to work in corporations. They worked with local companies as well as teachers at Vanderbilt to enable them to hit the ground running when they got their first corporate job.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vanderbilt runs an established executive MBA for older managers, ranked 62 in the world and 36 in the US by the Financial Times this year.
The Owen school belongs to the camp that believes the Executive format of the MBA should not mean the degree is a lightweight version of the full-time degree. The Owen EMBA requires all the quantitative skills of the school’s full-time degree, says Prof Bradford. “We say, if you want this step it’s going to be hard.”
At a time when business schools in general are beating their breasts over what they should be teaching, Prof Bradford’s emphasis on delivering what companies need is a refreshingly clear view. “We [business schools] ought to be the places that businesses look to,” he says. “I want to push that model very hard. It’s challenging because it’s change.”
This year, to develop MBA students who are rounded managers and future leaders, the school will run a pilot project in coaching with 40 students.
Each will have a personal coach and, if successful, the scheme will be extended to others in the full-time programme. Students are also carrying out consulting projects in local companies and non-profit organisations as a compulsory part of their degree.
As dean, Prof Bradford is inevitably involved in fund-raising for the Owen school, as part of the larger Vanderbilt fund-raising campaign. With a further two years still to go in the campaign, the Owen school has already raised $50m of its target $60m – the university as a whole is trying to raise $1.25bn. “I spend a lot of time and energy selling the school,” says Prof Bradford. “It’s that part of the job you do because it needs doing. It’s not the funnest past of the job.” So, what is the “funnest” part of the job? “Teaching and trying to make a difference in some people’s lives. I love being around the MBA students: they’re smart, they’re energetic and they’re fun.”