Dean profile: Robert Bruner of Darden Business School, University of Virginia

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Robert Bruner is a Darden man through and through. Indeed, his middle initial F could well stand for faithful (it in fact stands for Frank). His appointment last year as dean of the University of Virginia’s business school was the icing on the cake for a finance professor who had spent 24 years teaching at the school.

That said, it was far more than longevity that got him the job. Now 56, Professor Bruner is deeply committed to Darden’s method of teaching, the case study method, and the school’s positioning at the business, rather than the academic, end of the business education market.

What Prof Bruner makes clear is that Darden is neither a Wharton nor a Chicago, where academic publication is king. Nor does he want it to be. For him, management education is all about making businesses work better. “We are a very applied school, we have an affection for the practitioner.”

It is a view of management education that more and more business schools are beginning to value. At Darden, however, it is the hallmark of everything that is taught. The case method permeates the school to such an extent that when Darden built its new campus in the magnificent Jeffersonian style in the 1990s the classrooms were designed in a horseshoe shape specifically to promote student-to-student ­dialogue across the classroom floor.

The Darden dean’s love of the teaching method is hardly surprising, given his own academic background. Prior to joining the University of Virginia, Prof Bruner studied for an MBA and a Doctor of Business Administration degree at Harvard Business School – the powerhouse of management case writing. (His undergraduate degree is from Yale.) During his career he has written more than 250 cases in his own right, on debt crises, leveraged buy-outs, mergers and acquisitions, emerging markets . . . the list goes on.

A man both considered and authoritative, Prof Bruner describes the case method of education as Socratic. “I love it because it really inspires students to teach themselves,” he says. At the heart of this way of teaching is the idea that professors do not lecture but ask questions about the prescribed case study of an individual or corporation. “By framing an inquiry you help the student learn at two levels,” proposes Prof Bruner. First they learn to solve problems; second they reason through to the answer, he believes.

These days Darden publishes some 300 new case studies a year, second only in the US to Harvard Business School. Harvard sells about 7m copies of cases a year and grosses around $20m from case sales. (The Ivey school at the University of Western Ontario in Canada publishes a comparable amount to Darden.)

It is this method of research and teaching that Prof Bruner believes will help Darden distinguish itself in a world where most business courses are becoming commodity items, both in content and in style. In particular, he believes it will be crucial in educating leaders, a subject on which he has decided views.

“We believe the way to train leaders is to promote engagement. Leadership is about recognising opportunities; it’s about inspiring others; it’s about managing complexities over time and distance.”

These ideas permeate the structure of the Darden MBA programme. Virtually all examinations are done on a take-home basis, for example. Prof Bruner describes it as a “community of trust”, a community in which students and professors do not just talk about ethics.

While many of the top schools are differentiating themselves by introducing a technology focus in the programmes, Darden believes this cannot be the answer. “We believe the world is well-supplied with technocrats. The constraint on global growth is not in their hands,” he says. “This does not deny that the world needs technocrats. But I and my colleagues think that the crucial deficit is in leadership.”

Prof Bruner summarises the Darden approach to the MBA in a three-phrase mantra: “High touch; high tone; high octane.” The high touch he believes describes the classroom interaction; the high tone, the ethical stance of the school; the high octane, the workload that students get through on the MBA programme.

“We have high-performance graduates with a strong work ethic,” he says. Again he comes back to the case method. “You [MBAs] don’t want to spend two years of your life and approaching $100,000 just passively engaging, repeating an undergraduate-style experience.”

Just how the case method will adjust to 21st-century technology is a question for which the Darden dean still does not have an answer, however. “Increasingly our new generations of MBA students are quite savvy with regard to digital technology,” he says. “How do we have a Socratic conversation in a world of digital small packet exchanges? Is the push-back the same when the person is half way around the world and there is a 30-second timing lag.”

But on this, as well as on issues such as globalisation, Prof Bruner is aware Darden has to find an answer if it is to stay at the top of the tree. As a former visiting professor at both Insead in France and Iese Business School in Spain (as well as Columbia in New York), Prof Bruner is himself savvy about the range of business schools in Europe. But he is well aware that there is growing demand for management education in India, China and Latin America and in response he has just appointed the school’s first associate dean for international affairs – the school’s “foreign secretary”, as he puts it.

Darden’s global outreach is just one of the things on Prof Bruner’s wishlist for the next five to 10 years. Another is increasing the international composition of the faculty. In the past eight months he has recruited eight new faculty, six of whom were born outside the US.

But the two biggest concerns are research and fundraising. In particular, the Darden dean is keen that his faculty carry out research that can be published in the highest-rated international management journals but can also be made accessible to practitioners, through practitioner publications and case studies.

Last summer Darden launched a $150m capital campaign, the funds from which will be split three ways between research, the operations of the school and scholarships. The campaign will create a pool of more than $2m a year for scholarships for Darden’s 300 full-time MBA students – an executive MBA programme gets under way this year.

Prof Bruner is planning to gear up the school’s executive education offering – Darden’s portfolio of open enrolment programmes was ranked number one in the world in the Financial Times’ listing of executive education programmes in 2006. This demonstrates, above all, that Prof Bruner will develop Darden by building on its already considerable strengths.

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