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Glen Hubbard, the new dean of Columbia Business School, New York, is feeling a little constrained. In a building designed to cater for roughly half the students now filling its classrooms and corridors, he worries that the school does not have enough space to make the most of the type of team-working projects that are de rigueur in the MBA world. Discussions are under way concerning a new facility. In the meantime, the dean has had to endure the sound of hammering, drilling and sandpapering as adjustments are made to his office.
But these interior changes are part of the dean's bigger plan to bring business and academia closer together.
“Most of the guests that I have in here are business leaders, and I want to give them a sense of both ideas and practice. So I have a segment for my books, but then I'm also making [the office] look a little more formal,” he says. “It's like me - a cross between a professor and a business person.”
Prof Hubbard's time outside the world of academia proved to be what he describes as a “transformation”.
An economics professor raised in a small town in Florida, he has taught at Northwestern, Harvard and Chicago universities. In 2001, however, he found himself caught up in economic policy issues when President George W. Bush made him chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers.
The two years in that position, as well as a previous stint in the office of tax policy in the US Treasury Department, turned out to be formative. “I saw what people in the world were really worried about. It didn't affect the rigour of my work but it made me think differently,” he says.
“I've encouraged applied economists to do something in government. It doesn't have to be political, but something that gets them exposed to real problems, the same way that faculty should be out there talking to business people.”
One way he intends to get Columbia's academics and business people in more frequent contact is by launching a series of informal lunches and dinners where practitioners and faculty get together. These are intended to allow professors and chief executives to discuss the big issues as they see them. “I hope that dialogue brings people closer together,” he says.
He also sees the increasing prominence of customised executive programmes as playing a role. Such programmes, which can be tailor-made to the client's business issues, mean faculty become involved in real business projects, he says.
“It gives them examples for the classroom that are powerful for our students and might give [faculty] new research questions - a hard problem, for a company that vexes their business people probably vexes our people too, so that's very good.”
He would like to encourage a shift in thinking when it comes to things such as sabbaticals, so that, instead of a sojourn at another university or business school, staff might spend time working in the corporate sector.
Of course, when it comes to his plans for the school, Prof Hubbard will be taking the “handle with care” approach, and his caution is understandable.
The school resonates with tradition. It was established in 1916 at a university founded in 1754 by a charter from George II. Faculty members include Nobel prize winners such as Joseph Stiglitz. It counts among its alumni figures such as Henry Kravis, king of the leveraged buy-out, and the school's links with Wall Street are unparalleled in the academic world.
Another reason for Prof Hubbard's caution is that he has stepped into the shoes of Meyer Feldberg, whose 15-year tenure has been applauded by figures such as Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor. Prof Feldberg filled the school's coffers, increasing the budget from $30m (£17m) in 1989 to $140m in 2004, expanding the endowment from $16m to $280m and completing a $170m capital campaign a year early. He also wrought dramatic changes to the curriculum, integrating globalisation into the programme at a time when not every academic was convinced of the merits of doing so.
Prof Feldberg's legacy does not, however, mean that his successor intends to leave the school in aspic. For a start, he plans to expand its global outlook, focusing on Asia - particularly China and India. He sees the school ultimately forming alliances with institutions in places such as Shanghai. But he is not in any rush. He has secured funding for a fellowship programme that would bring prominent young Chinese people in both public and private sectors to the US for a four-week executive training programme.
This project he sees as benefiting the school in two ways. “First, we're getting access to the up-and-comers, we're getting somebody on the other end of the phone in China,” he says. “It's also a quick way of establishing more of a meaningful beachhead in China.”
At the same time, he would like to alter the school's image as an institution heavily weighted in finance, first by bringing on to the board of overseers a group of alumni largely outside the financial services sector. “I'd like to see us involved with more non-financial services practitioners,” he says. “While [students] are here, I don't want them only thinking about finance. And it's easier for me to preach that message since I am an economist and I do teach finance.”
Whatever the discipline, Prof Hubbard has plans to integrate questions of ethics and business responsibility into core courses of the MBA. He believes that because these issues pertain to all business disciplines, they should be incorporated into all classes, rather than taught as separate courses.
So as well as offering electives on business and society, every core course taught on the MBA programme will include a case examining the sort of difficult ethical trade-offs that businesses trying to behave responsibly have to make.
Tempering these plans, however, is Prof Hubbard's recognition that he has to respect and foster the school's existing advantages.
“One of the things I take very seriously is that I see myself as steward of the brand,” Prof Hubbard says. “Just as the Federal Reserve is trying to stabilise the purchasing power of the dollar, I'm trying to stabilise and increase the purchasing power of a Columbia MBA. So I want to be very careful with what we do.”