When Bill Boulding says he played basketball as a student, it comes as no real surprise. But whatever aspirations the towering 57-year-old had to become a sportsman when he was younger, these were eschewed as he followed his parents into a career in academia.
Not that this was necessarily his first plan. At the age of 24, with an economics degree under his belt, he enrolled on the MBA programme at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he was spotted by the chairman of the marketing department, Tom Robertson, now Wharton’s dean.
Robertson persuaded his student to switch from an MBA to a PhD, and his faith has clearly paid off. His protégé is now dean of a business school himself: the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina.
Boulding says his role at Fuqua – he became dean in summer 2011 – is very different from that of a marketing professor. “I don’t get to teach any more. It’s something I think deans miss a lot. I miss it a lot. It is also difficult to continue with research.”
Teaching has been superseded by travel – something acutely necessary at Fuqua, whose professors teach in six countries outside the US – China, India, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and the UK.
“It is important to keep in touch with students. I find I am giving talks all the time. That has in some ways replaced the classroom for me. And connecting with the [17,000] alumni is extremely important.”
He does not regret his promotion, though. “I’ve never worked harder. I’ve never slept less. I’ve never had more fun. I’m having a blast.”
A Fuqua man through and through, Boulding joined the school in 1984 while he was still finishing his doctoral degree at Wharton. Today, he still believes Fuqua has a very special culture and a very special strategy.
It was a former dean, Tom Keller, who coined the phrase “Team Fuqua”, says Boulding, but he believes the collaborative approach of the Fuqua faculty is what makes it different from most top US schools. “We like to have people who have multiple homes. We want to avoid ‘siloing’ people – saying this is someone who can only do one thing.”
It will also help Fuqua work collaboratively with other departments in the university, such as healthcare, the environment, energy and the geopolitics of security, as the school expands its teaching overseas.
“This year what we are trying to do is build a presence in Brazil and South Africa,” says Boulding, with student social enterprise projects playing a key role. Getting a feel for what is needed on the ground is critical in regions such as the Amazon, he says.
“That is one of the most important places in the whole world in terms of our future. That is a place where, whatever we do there, we have to be of the place, rather than projecting our ideas in.”
When most business schools think of Brazil, they are likely to target Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. But Boulding believes Fuqua can bring greater value to the Amazon region. His mantra is that there are three forces at work in the business world: globalisation – “the world doesn’t look the same as it did when business schools were created”; interdependence; and disruption.
“We want to be in places that are maximally interdependent and maximally subject to disruption. That is where you maximise the ability to change,” argues Boulding.
“The upside is positive disruption. If you can do something better, then why wouldn’t you?”