It was when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 that Edouard Husson, then living in France, packed his bags and headed for Berlin, to study and later to teach. “I found that our leaders were not ready for these events,” says the 43-year-old Frenchman, “So I had to go and see more.”
During his 11 years in Germany his enthusiasm for all things European flourished, a passion that has led Prof Husson to his latest job. In September he was appointed dean of ESCP Europe, the business school with campuses in five of Europe’s most influential cities – Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Turin.
“I wanted to be in a place where I would really enjoy having a global community. It’s a wonderful network of wonderful cities in one of the biggest economies in the world.”
In spite of his enthusiasm for the school, Prof Husson’s appointment came as a surprise in French academic circles. For Prof Husson is a history professor, who before joining ESCP was the vice-chancellor of the University of Paris – actually eight linked public universities.
The appointment of a humanities professor to lead one of Europe’s leading business schools is a signal of things to come in the French business school world, and Prof Husson is quite clear about the relationships that the stand-alone business school has to build in the wider academic environment in France.
“The business school has to develop a wider academic network,” he says. “The students are expecting a much closer relationship between the business schools and the universities.”
However conservative the academic faculty, students are demanding changes across Europe, believes the new dean. “It’s the same everywhere. Students are the driving force and it has been the same for 20 years. There are changes everywhere.”
For the new dean, listening to what the students have to say will be one of the priorities in his new role. In particular, he says, they are concerned about getting jobs on graduation and the range of jobs they will have during their lifetimes, and there is a growing interest in entrepreneurship.
Faculty present a more difficult issue. “Academics are reluctant to change at first sight. They want to have an explanation about why they need to change.”
But change the school undoubtedly will, believes the new dean, as there is an imperative for French business schools to become more global. Traditionally there have been three top business schools in France, but these local rules no longer apply, he argues. “Everyone has to compete on a European scale from the point of view of Asian or South American students.”
For the next two to three years Prof Husson insists he will work on strengthening and deepening ESCP’s European model. Trilingual himself – he speaks English, French and German – Prof Husson says that ideally he would like all students to be able to speak three languages on graduation. About a third do so already.
But already Prof Husson has questions he feels the school needs to address, most notably a deeper commitment to academic research, implementation of online learning and a wider network of campuses or partners.
“My first question is, ‘What is the new breed of business schools?’” he asks.
But he is clear that he will have help in coming up with the answer. “I don’t think the dean has to have many ideas, but to ensure that the ideas of others are emphasised if they are good.”
Once the issues of research, global reach and technology are addressed, ESCP may consider relaunching its full-time MBA programme – it is one of the few top business schools that does not run an MBA programme.
“If we offer something [an MBA], it has to be innovative,” concludes Prof Husson, “because the market is very innovative.”