Business Standard

Q&A: Robert F Bruner, Dean, Darden Business School

'True vocation is toward a set of values'

Robert F Bruner
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At a time when the case study method of teaching is being criticised, Robert F Bruner, dean, Darden Business School, University of Virginia, believes it is the right way to prepare an MBA for the world of business. A finance professor for 24 years before assuming charge as dean at in 2006, Bruner tells Praveen Bose that is all about making businesses work better. Excerpts:

You are promoting executive MBA in India. What is your strategy?
About half of the applicants apply directly and the other half come from companies. We approach them through corporate outreach and direct marketing. In the global programme, we have 15 students in the inaugural class. Our aim is to have 40-50 per class. I should have a small class and should be selective. The inaugural class always determines the reputation of the programme. In the US, for the full-time MBA programmes, a huge volume of applications comes from Indians. China and India are the most represented, outside the US. They have formed an extensive network. Darden is very receptive to Indian students. Our curriculum is high-impact and highly selective. They will carry the same degree as the others.

What teaching methods does Darden follow?
Our methods point to three things: a) We give more attention to the interests of society in training business leaders, in the interface between the government and society; b) We focus on psychology because much of the structure of MBA training is economics which makes assumptions on markets. It does not explain why panic happens. So psychology can help; c) We focus on business ethics. All decisions should take the wider interest of society into consideration. Some securities were written and mortgages lent and sold under fraudulent conditions. We don’t know why rating agencies gave AAA ratings to what were risky securities. There’s much more we need to understand. The curriculum is responding to these attributes, adding content that deals with social awareness and social perspectives in business and behavioural research. We are one among the few business schools where the student takes a graded course in business ethics.

Has the recent taught any lessons to students?
All financial crisis is highly instructive to the young people, especially students. I wrote a book on financial crisis. I have emphasised the inter-linkage of systems. How decisions in one part of society have a huge impact on the rest of society and teach students to fight crises. The insights revert to the humanistic perspective of business — paying attention to human obligations, to motives and the state of mind, and intentions. It should make students pay attention to welfare and, above all, it should create in the minds of MBAs humility of decision-making and work. In contrast, in the 1990s we had all the answers. But, economy and society are vastly more complicated now. To make a wise decision you need to recognise the dangers. We need to think critically what caused the crisis and what we must do to exit this crisis.

Was there a change in the outlook of the class of 2010 given that we had just emerged from the crisis?
The class of 2010 had a sharp change in outlook because of the crisis. Students were disappointed. They missed the point that is toward a set of values and not just getting a specific job. Some students applied in the fall of 2007 and enrolled in August 2008 when financial institutions were teetering on the brink. The same students discovered a different market when they looked for a job in 2008-09. They were disappointed. The financial community was laying off rather than hiring. The inability was due to the macro-economic conditions. Many went on to become entrepreneurs. Most wanted to start or run a firm. Many others discovered that they had healthcare other than financial services and that was a healthy discovery. The class of 2010 considered the big alternatives.

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