Alfons Sauquet is in a reflective mood. As he ponders the past year of economic turmoil and the consequent blame laid at the door of business academics, the dean of Spain’s Esade Business School acknowledges academic institutions have to accept some of the responsibility for what happened. “What business schools missed having was a bigger voice. One of our responsibilities is to stand up and say, ‘This I do not understand’.”

Underneath the classic business suit, the bearded and quietly spoken Spaniard is very much the academic. “We were not strong enough,” he rues. “We should have made our points and had a higher profile.” And he concedes what few academics have been prepared to say: that the cosy relationship between business schools and the corporate world may have clouded academic ­rigour. “We have become ­extremely prudent. We don’t want to alienate our future clients.”

Given the history of Esade, Prof Sauquet’s candour is perhaps less surprising than it may seem. Established in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, during Franco’s rule, the school has a history of standing up for its beliefs. An engaging storyteller, the dean ­relates the time in the early 1970s when the school brought toge­ther business ­leaders and trade unionists under its roof. Though trade unions were banned by Franco and operated underground, the school’s academics were aware the Franco era would end (he died in 1975) and the groundwork needed to be laid for the benefit of the region’s future business.

Indeed, Esade has always had a particularly strong relationship with business. Local business leaders first approached the Jesuit community in the late 1950s to ask the priests to help them set up a business school. Esade was founded in 1958, roughly the same time as Barcelona’s other prominent business school, Iese – part of the Opus Dei University of Navarra. Today, control of the Esade foundation is divided equally between the business community and the Jesuits.

Prof Sauquet believes it was no coincidence that these business schools were established contemporaneously. Businesses in the region also knew Franco’s rule would come to an end and recognised they needed to act to stimulate the economy, which until that point had ­effectively been closed. However, for Esade, Franco’s death meant much more than a change in the economic environment. Under dictatorship the university could not teach in the local Catalan language; today, as all European universities move towards teaching in English, Esade still teaches one stream of its undergraduate degree in Catalan.

The mild-mannered Prof Sauquet, a human resources professor who studied at Columbia University in the US as well as in Spain, is himself Catalan born and bred. He believes Esade’s radical approach, formed in this revolutionary region, ripples through the culture of the business school. “Esade can and should play with the boundaries a little bit,” he says. He points to the creation of the Cems (Community of European Management Schools) masters degree, which is run by 25 business schools around the world, as an example of the school’s ­creativity. Esade was instrumental in its creation in the late 1980s, he explains. “It was ­devised by two director-generals – of Esade and HEC Paris – ­sitting down over a beer.”

A further example of the school’s innovation is the revamped MBA programme, which can be studied in 12, 15 or 18 months, depending on whether the student wants to complete a company internship. The programme is proving incredibly popular: applications have increased by 65 per cent this year. The school also runs an executive MBA for working managers with the McDonough school at Georgetown University in the US, which is also a Jesuit institution.

Esade has strong links with the Art Center in Pasadena, ­California, too, investigating the relationship between business and design. Indeed, one of Esade’s most popular short executive programmes is the aptly named “Beyond Pretty”, a five-day workshop in which ­managers get to grips with design as a way of creating business opportunities.

However, arguably the biggest project this decade has been the “Creapolis” innovation centre just outside Barcelona in Sant Cugat, which opened earlier this year. There, banks, local ­government offices, entrepreneurs and other companies mingle with students from the school’s undergraduate and masters degree programmes. The aim is for business to stimulate academic ideas and vice versa.

“The flow of ideas from one side to the other has been very high,” reports the dean. “The data is very good and the atmosphere very exciting.”

Looking ahead, Prof Sauquet outlines a future for business schools in which they will be more rigorous in the roles they play. “I’m optimistic we will do it,” he says. Like many deans, he wonders whether management would benefit from the sort of professional framework and regulated bodies under which doctors and lawyers operate.

His key point is that business schools should accept they have a wider role to play in society above that of simply turning out ­managers who are intent on ­increasing corporate shareholder value.

“We are a bridge between different communities,” he says. Esade has proved it can build those bridges in the past. Prof Sauquet now hopes Creapolis will enable the business school to do so in the future.

www.esade.edu

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