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Betting The Future Of A B-School On The Future

After all, an impartial observer wouldn’t even call this a David vs. Goliath match. The school significantly trails its rivals in every ranking of MBA education. Its endowment is well under $100 million, a mere fraction of Harvard’s $2.8 billion. Less than one in ten alums donate money to the school in any given year, about a third of the total at either MIT or Harvard.

Freeman, however, doesn’t think his goal is unreachable. In fact, to realize his dream, the former chief executive of Quest Diagnostics Inc. is betting the future of the school on the future.

A BIG BET ON HEALTH CARE, ALTERNATIVE ENERGY, AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

The school has identified the three sectors of the economy where it believes, in his words, “there will be more job creation, more financial market creation, and more value creation for societies, communities and countries over the next five, ten and 20 years.” With faculty approval gained earlier this year, Freeman is now aligning the school’s professors, research, and curriculum around the three growth areas.

The three are health care and life sciences, digital technology, and alternative energy and sustainability. In academia where loyalty is to a discipline rather than an industry or economic sector, Freeman, 62, is attempting a revolutionary change in both mindset and behavior. Whether the Harvard MBA can pull it off is anyone’s guess, but the odds are certainly not in his favor.

The single biggest challenge, of course, will be to convince faculty to focus on the three sectors when they have already hitched their careers to disciplines, such as accounting, finance, marketing, or strategy. Concedes N. “Venkat” Venkatraman, a long-time management professor at the school, “Faculty members aren’t drawn to the sectors as easily as employers and students. But I don’t think that we can distinguish the school by only writing in academic journals.”

PLANS TO RECRUIT NEW FACULTY, CREATE ACADEMIC CENTERS AND CASE CONTESTS

To make those sectors an integral part of Boston’s culture and approach, Freeman plans to recruit new faculty, create academic centers in each field, launch global case competitions in each area, and infuse much of the coursework with case studies and experiential projects in each of the three industries. “We’re recruiting for specific disciplines but we are also doing it with a twist by focusing on specialization in digital technology, the health sector or energy,” he says. “We want to create leading global institutes in each of these sectors to engage faculty here and with other institutions. For us to be distinguished, we have to have cutting-edge research in these fields.”

For incoming students, the focus on those three areas starts immediately. “When students arrive we provide them with a brief overview of those sectors and then they move through the traditional management discipline training,” adds Freeman. “We are transforming case content to reflect these sectors much more so than the traditional sectors of the past. And the classroom discussions will be supplemented by lectures from today’s executives in these fields.”

He then expects graduates, 40% of which now enter finance and consulting, to stream into those high-growth fields. “There might be some heavy lifting here but this is where the jobs are going,” insists Freeman.

A CORPORATE EXECUTIVE APPROACH TO HIGHER EDUCATION

By John A.Byrne

The wonder of it all is that this relative newcomer to the deanship is not an academic visionary but rather a pragmatic and hard-nosed executive. Freeman had worked at Corning Inc. since 1972, rising through the finance ranks, until the company asked him to take the top leadership role of its Quest Diagnostics unit in 1995. He led the spin off of that business in 1997, increasing its market value from $350 million when it was brought public to $9 billion-plus when he left as Chairman and CEO in 2004. Freeman then moved on to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) where he helped to oversee the firm’s private equity investments.

After BU School of Management Dean Louis Lataif, a former high-ranking Ford Motor executive, announced plans to retire in late 2009, a search committee cast a wide net for a successor. It approached Freeman to see if he would be interested in applying for the job. While at KKR, he had been an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School, which led to invitations to teach “transformational leadership” in BU’s core course on organizational behavior for three years in a row. “I guess I got a passing grade because I was invited back,” he laughs.

At the time, it was his only connection to Boston University. Freeman had earned his undergraduate degree in business in 1972 from Bucknell University, where he served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. He earned his MBA in 1976 from Harvard Business School.

A FIRST GENERATION COLLEGE GRAD WHO WANTED A CHANCE TO IMPACT NEXT GEN LEADERSHIP

Though some faculty believed it was time to have a pure academic in the job, three professors put Freeman’s name in nomination. “I had been thinking about higher education for awhile,” he says. “I’m a first generation college grad and this is opportunity to impact the next generation of leaders.”

His successor had made significant progress during a 19-year stint as dean. During Lataif’s tenure, the number of undergraduate applications to the university soared, from 1,943 in 1991 to 4,305, and average SAT scores of accepted students rose more than 200 points. The year before his arrival, the school was not even ranked by Business Week. Its full-time MBA program is now ranked 38th, while its undergraduate business degree is ranked 18th. Poets&Quants currently ranks BU’s full-time MBA program in 36th place.

Freeman assumed the deanship on Aug. 1 of 2010, met individually with every faculty member of the school, and then made two quick changes. He made sure there was free coffee in the faculty lounge and he relocated the dean’s expansive office from the top floor of the school’s six-story facility to a more egalitarian, second-floor space closer to students.

“You had to go through double glass doors and a wood-veneered lobby and two administrative assistants to get into my office,” he recalls. “It was the most ostentatious office I ever had in my life. My belief is in leadership is that is accessible, transparent and available. I’m now 100 feet from the Starbucks on our undergraduate classroom floor. At least ten to 15 students and five faculty members stop by on any normal academic day. I am here to serve this community and I now have that chance.”

More substantively, Freeman came to some other conclusions. “Walking in the door, I knew this was a school that had risen nicely under Dean Lataif,” he says. “But I think the school was waiting for what do we do next. It had not become complacent, but it wasn’t as energized a place as I might have anticipated. This was not a turnaround in any way shape or form. But there was a relative lack of intensity over where we were going and how we were going to get there.”

EARLY IMPRESSIONS: WEAK ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT AND AN OBSOLETE CURRICULUM

Freeman also made another quick discovery. “I also found that not unlike a lot of schools, alumni engagement was very limited,” he says. “We have 45,000 living alumni of this school which will be 100 years old in 2013. Yet, no one knew that we would have our 100th birthday only two years after I got here. No one knew it–not the alumni or the faculty. There was a thin veneer of very loyal donors—maybe 100 to 150 and then the rest was like that cheap fiberboard in IKEA furniture. That was a surprise.”

But the greatest opportunity, realized Freeman, was to change the school’s very strategy. “I was warned when I got here that the curriculum was obsolete,” he says. “It was ten years old at the graduate level and 15 years old at undergraduate level.” So he got the school’s faculty to plunge into the work of a redesign.

 

Initially, in early 2012, he gained faculty approval for the changes to Boston’s large undergraduate program with 2,000 students. And in the spring, Freeman asked for change to the graduate program with 1,200 students. “Given that we had a dean change after 19 years, it was relatively easy,” says Venkatraman. “People felt the time was right to go through change in the curriculum. We can broaden the application of our domain expertise to one of these three sectors so that our research is conducted in a laboratory called the health care, energy or digital technology sector.”

Besides the novel economy focus, the curriculum changes also put more emphasis on ethics and social responsibility, entrepreneurship and innovation, and the addition of an experiential global leadership opportunity for students “that goes beyond a free class trip,” says Freeman. The changes will get implemented in the fall of 2013. “It’s about creating value for society, the community and for the world–where this world is going and not where it has been.”

ONLY FOUR PROFESSORS VOTED AGAINST THE MBA CHANGES

Shockingly perhaps, there was virtually no opposition. “We had one negative vote in undergrad and four negative votes for the MBA,” says Freeman. “Our faculty owns this change. There will never be a ‘my’ strategy. It will be our strategy.”

Clearly, that’s the only way it will stick and work. But it’s one thing to proclaim a new direction and quite another to successfully execute on the new vision.

“This was a commuter school 30 years ago,” reflects Freeman. “We are going through a transformation now and we are playing hardball. We have to catch up on the endowment, but there is a scrappiness, desire and willingness to change and work together. We are going to have to be the old Avis that tries harder. But when you think of Boston in the future, I want you to think there are three elite business schools here.”

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