Do business leaders or academics make the best deans?

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The Independent Online

It may be tough at the top but it's even tougher finding top people. A good dean can make a huge difference to a business school, but dean-hunting is a lot trickier than it once was, thanks to the expansion of the sector and increased expectations about what a dean's talents ought to be.

Add to that the debate about whether the best deans come from an academic or a business background and it's understandable that the perfect dean - despite the efforts of professional headhunters - is an increasingly elusive beast.

This is a time of change for many schools. London Business School is scouring the world for a replacement for Laura Tyson, Lord Currie's resignation from Cass has created a vacancy and Oxford's Saïd and Cambridge's Judge schools have new men at the top.

Meanwhile Manchester Business School has finally concluded its marathon two-year search for a dean to replace Professor John Arnold with the appointment of an American professor, Michael Luger.

Arnold says that the question of whether an academic or business background was best was a big consideration in Manchester's dean hunt, though after an international search, business figures did not actually figure in the short list.

"You really want both academic and business experience but it is rare to find both in the same person," says Arnold. "Academics can be arrogant and the dean has to be thought by faculty to be their intellectual equal and to understand academic processes. As the same time there is this external role for a dean particularly in relation to fund- raising, which is becoming more and more important."

Arnold also argues that what constitutes perfect dean material varies from school to school. Those offering - as Manchester now does - the full undergraduate, postgraduate and executive business course menu might have more need for a dean with an academic background than those institutions more focused on, for example, executive MBAs.

While Manchester has indeed opted for an academic in the appointment of Luger, from Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Arnold says the possibility of making two top appointments - one to oversee internal academic matters and another to focus on the external - was seriously considered. A second appointment is still a possibility, though Luger, who has fund-raising experience, would still be overall boss.

"It is pretty common in north American business schools to have two top jobs with the president focusing on the external and the provost running the internal," says Arnold. If Manchester does end up with a leadership duo, it will set a precedent for the UK.

The decision last year by INSEAD to opt for PricewaterhouseCoopers's J. Frank Brown - career accountant rather than career academic - raised eyebrows in France. Even in the US, despite the success of businessmen like Wharton's Tom Gerrity, appointing a business person to the top job still prompts comment.

Chris Bones, principal of Henley Management College, is one of the few business figures to head a British business school. The former Cadbury Schweppes executive argues that candidates from both academic and business backgrounds can make good deans.

He also admits that appointing from business does have its drawbacks. "Nothing in my 22 years in business prepared me for running a business school," says Bones. "In business, success tends to be measured not on the strength of an idea but in its execution. Managing people for whom ideas and brain power are the USP is radically different. I had never before seen colleagues grill and challenge each other's ideas to such a degree."

However, Bones believes he brings to the business school environment a vital ingredient, missing from many other schools - a better understanding of what business wants from business schools. "Too many schools are focused on what they can produce rather than what is wanted by business," he says.

Bones argues that because Henley is independent of state and university funding, it is more commercially aware that other schools. He believes highly academic schools - where ever more esoteric research dominates and success is measured by publication in arcane, obscure journals - are responsible for what he sees as business's increasing disillusionment with the business school sector.

"Henley is a good fit for a dean like me," concludes Bones. "If I was dean at a university-based, theoretical research-led school, I would probably lose the will to live."

Professor Colin Mayer took over the reins at Saïd this month and immediately announced plans for a £30m executive education centre, backed by the university's vice-chancellor, Dr John Hood. Mayer says his school has a duty not just to provide practical solutions for business but also to answer some of the wider questions facing business and society - such as how to curb global warming. "I think this school is placing more emphasis on this than other schools," he says.

Mayer also argues that being an academic has not stopped him gaining direct business experience - he helped to found the influential economics consultancy Oxera. But his understanding of academia, he says, is crucial in a business school firmly embedded in the wider structure of Oxford University, where he himself was an undergraduate.

"A dean can formulate and articulate a vision and provide the right kind of ethos and environment in a school," he says. "The dean is an important element in a school, but not the only one."

At Cambridge, Professor Arnoud De Meyer also argues that knowing how academia works is crucial in a business school dean because "the culture of business and business schools are very different." Few people have experience of both.

To exploit the rich resources of Cambridge, the Judge Business school head has to have the respect of colleagues in other disciplines, says De Meyer. During his career, he has set up a handful of businesses. "Two were liquidated and three were successful," he volunteers with disarming frankness. De Meyer was also responsible for setting up INSEAD's Singapore campus.

He points out that business schools are not easy to run, not least because of the multitude of stakeholders to be satisfied. Some potentially perfect deans - particularly from business backgrounds - can simply find easier and more lucrative leadership posts.