At first glance, Bob Bruner might appear to be a traditional US business school dean. He is smartly dressed, bespectacled and affable, with degrees from Harvard and Yale under his belt. He has a penchant for research into corporate finance, with around 300 case studies to his name.
He is also dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where the neoclassical Jeffersonian-style buildings mean this is perhaps the only business school in the world where students can congregate under cut-glass chandeliers and beside Chippendale balustrades.
But it only takes a short conversation to realise that appearances can be deceptive. Prof Bruner has made a bit of a name for himself in business dean circles by being one of the first and most thoughtful bloggers. He also chaired the international task force for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the US accreditation body, to focus US business schools’ attention on horizons beyond the country’s shores.
“I delivered the report. It generated a collective sign of exhaustion,” says Prof Bruner. “But out of such sighs tend to arise ideas for change.”
Now, he has moved on to the next big topic of the day: Moocs (massive open online courses). “I have the sense among deans that technology is doing today what globalisation was doing to the collective conscience three or four years ago,” he says.
Prof Bruner is no newcomer to technological innovation. Darden was one of the first business schools to adopt ereaders in the classroom – at the dean’s instigation.
But he is warier about the implementation of Moocs. “At the moment there is a sense it is creating a win-win situation,” he says. “There will be a reckoning, which will reveal the weaknesses, faultlines and stress points in the industry. There will be winners and losers.”
In a speculative scenario he likens the rise of Mooc technology platforms Coursera and edX to the rise of Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. “These three are aggregators and rely on content generators to supply the material,” he says.
But with this kind of aggregation, the development costs are borne by the content suppliers, rather than the host platforms – and there is the rub. “The crunch will be the growing realisation by academics that it will be a lot more expensive proposition than people suspect now,” says Prof Bruner.
Most business schools are encouraging professors to develop Moocs instead of teaching courses or conducting research. But “sooner or later, schools are going to have to pay”, says Prof Bruner.
The big question, he smiles, is how much. Should professors be paid at the business school teaching rate – that applied when they teach extra short courses, for example? Or should they be paid the same as when they act as corporate consultants – a much higher rate?
There is also a question of quality. “Faculty are putting together courses at different levels of production values,” he says. If different schools produce accounting videos, they will compete and each develop a market value.
The good news, he says, is that this should favour Darden, which has always put quality of teaching first. This will give it the lead in offering Moocs and also help it promote its face-to-face teaching, he believes.
Prof Bruner has no doubt pre-matriculation courses, such as basic statistics, will be done online. But classroom debate is essential to develop concepts, he argues. As an example he cites his own field (finance), which is dominated by theory of rational expectation and market efficiency. “We have to teach those concepts, but what is really exciting are the exceptions to this,” he says.
He believes case studies, in which Darden is a worldbeater, are still the answer. “To me a case is a rich, messy problem,” he says. “Managers don’t solve problems – they manage messiness. Quantitative solutions are severe reductions of reality.”
1949 Born in Chicago, Illinois, US
1971 Graduated with a BA from Yale University
1974 Received an MBA from Harvard University
1982 Earned his DBA from Harvard Business School and joined Darden the same year as an assistant professor
1993 Promoted to full professor
2005 Appointed as the eighth dean of the Darden school, with 400 employees and a budget of $85m