Who would be a business-school dean? It is a thought that must have gone through the heads of many business professors when they saw the very public firing of Doug Guthrie, the former dean of George Washington University School of Business, in the US, in August.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, what struck me the most was the sheer personal venom unleashed in open forums by some of those who had been involved with the school. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned, it seems.
Coincidentally, it was about the same time that I received an anonymous letter from a professor at a top European business school complaining about its own dean. After listing a catalogue of perceived misdemeanours by the dean, the correspondent wondered whether “the staff will rouse themselves to deal collectively with a ‘leader’ who is clearly out of control”. Stirring stuff.
But it was the final sentence that contained the nub. Once the dean was deposed, the writer continues, perhaps then the faculty could “reclaim” the business school for academe. Oh dear…
On one level, the unhappiness at this European school and that at George Washington University have a similar cause: the dean wanted to change things. At the European school one of the biggest complaints was that the dean expanded student numbers, which “interferes with research” – this at a time when most European schools would kill for more students.
But what is most disquieting is the inherent structural folly of a situation where a group of tenured professors with a job for life can effectively be judge and jury on the career of someone who has been appointed to change the way they, the professors, operate. After all, it is not as if these deans were having inappropriate relationships with students or dealing drugs from the dean’s office.
It is difficult to ascertain how many deans lose their jobs because the academic staff rejects them. This is particularly true in Europe where the standalone nature of business schools can give professors real power – at Insead, for example, the dean is elected on the basis of a faculty vote. In the US, by comparison, deans are almost invariably appointed by the president of the university, who also has the power to fire them.
What is clear is that the tenure of deans is getting shorter. A quick look down the list of the top 25 EMBA programmes in this year’s Financial Times’ ranking paints a telling picture. The average tenure of deans at the 27 schools running these programmes is less than five years – and these are the world’s top business schools. What is more, that figure is being held up by just a handful of long-serving bosses: Bernard Ramanantsoa at HEC Paris (18 years), Jordi Canals at Iese Business School (12 years), Glenn Hubbard at Columbia Business School (nine years) and Santiago Iñiguez at IE Business School (nine years).
More rigorous research is done by AACSB, the US accreditation body. The 2011-12 AACSB deans’ survey asked how long the previous dean had held the job. The average deanship of the 346 US-based schools that responded was 5.73 years. The median was four years.
This short tenure is particularly problematic because the recruitment process for a new dean takes so long. The top schools require deans to give a year’s notice – Thomas Robertson announced his intention to leave the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania early this year, but will depart in mid-2014. How difficult must it be for any dean in this position to implement changes when everyone knows he or she has one foot out of the door?
What is equally strange, though, is that when business school do net themselves a top-notch dean, some arcane university rule often means they have to get rid of them after a specified period of time. Of course they are only ousted from the dean’s job – their tenure as professor continues, should they want it. Which highlights another peculiar situation. If the chief executive of a bank or the editor of a newspaper steps down, they do not go back to being a branch cashier or a reporter. So why do most ex-deans return to become professors again, working for someone who has replaced them as dean?
All of which raises a final question: what exactly is the atmosphere like around the water cooler in the business school at George Washington University these days?
In an earlier version of this article, we incorrectly stated that Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School at the University of Toronto, was ousted and unceremoniously kicked out of his job at the end of his term of office.
In fact Mr Martin decided, after 15 years’ service, to step down on his own initiative one year before the end of his term, having completed the major projects on which he had been working. Dr David Naylor, President Emeritus of the University of Toronto, has confirmed Mr Martin chose his own date of departure and left his post amid celebrations of his legacy.
We are happy to make the position clear. We apologise to Mr Martin for the inaccuracy.
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published