New dean sees a lot of himself in faculty
By Paul Mayne
May 09, 2013
In the Ivey Business School, Robert (Bob) Kennedy has found an institution that mirrors his career in many ways.
“When I look around, Ivey has a mix of activities that are very similar and parallel to the way I’ve managed my career,” said Kennedy, who was recently named dean of the iconic business school. “I’ve done a lot of focus on teaching and case writing, a lot of focus on practitioner type work as well as the academic side. So, when I got the call this position might be open, I thought it was a really good fit.
“If I’m ever going to do it, it’s hard to think of a better fit than this.”
Kennedy begins his five-year term as dean on Oct. 1, following Carol Stephenson, Ivey dean since 2003. He will serve as a special advisor to the provost in September, before assuming the role of dean in October.
Kennedy comes to Western following a decade with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where he has served in multiple roles including executive director of the William Davidson Institute, director of the Ross School Global Initiative and the Tom Lantos Professor of Business Administration. Prior to his tenure at Michigan, Kennedy was a faculty member at Harvard Business School from 1995-2003.
He holds a PhD in Business Economics from Harvard University, a Masters of Science in Management from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and two undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Economics from Stanford University.
Western News reporter Paul Mayne sat down with Kennedy to discuss his new role at Western and his outlook for the Ivey Business School.
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A new country, a new position and, on top of that, a new building to do it in. This has to be an exciting time for you?
I’m inheriting an organization that seems like it’s firing on all cylinders. The alumni are happy; the faculty seems like they’re strong; the program ratings are very high; the finances of the school are all healthy. So, I can come and keep the ship on course, so we can think about new initiatives.
One thing I think is important to realize is Ivey is a little bit of an unusual business role model. If you think of the Top 20 business schools, there is a focus on three things, somewhat equally: top-flight academic research, which all schools claim; emphasis on teaching, good pedagogy and engaging the students and also an emphasis on engaging the practitioner community, because a lot of that academic research is simply for other academics.
There are a couple schools that are practitioner oriented. Harvard Business School is like that; University of Virginia (Darden) is like that. This is not a very densely populated segment, but I feel it’s a real attractive segment.
Then there are a set of schools that are extremely academic oriented, where their faculty really take to other academics or economists. It’s not that one is a better strategy, but Ivey is in a fairly small group that values the academic research, but also invests quite a lot in having good programs, in top-quality teaching and also working on real business problems.
You’re not just working on things that other economists care about or other marketing people – the theoretical stuff – but you are connecting theory to practice and that’s the type of work that interests me.
So, if a purely academic school came to me, I wouldn’t be that interested. That’s not what I do. Ultimately, what a business school wants to do is educate people and create new knowledge, but it also wants to create knowledge that draws from practice (the real world) and also influences practice. This is Ivey’s traditional positioning.
So, you’re saying not to expect any major changes on the horizon?
To me, Ivey has the right strategy, so I don’t feel I have to come in and make any dramatic changes. I need to spend the first six months to a year really getting to know the faculty. It’s a very large faculty, many at different stages of their careers, so there is sort of an emersion process there. Then, I’ll be spending my time introducing myself to the alumni and getting to know the Canadian business community. There is a lot of overlap with the U.S. business community, but Ivey occupies a special place in the Canadian business community and most of those people don’t know me.
It’s good the basics are running well, because I can then spend some time with the faculty and seeing what their concerns are. Over time, we may look at opportunities to potentially expand the programs, but smartly, you don’t want to do growth just for growth sake.
Is there a different business mentality when it comes to the markets in Canada and the United States?
I feel the markets are very well integrated. Most large American companies operate up here and most large Canadian companies operate down there. The politics are fairly different between the countries, but the economic issues, while not exactly identical, there’s a 70-80 per cent overlap. Almost all top business schools are focusing on global business issues as well. If you’re a decent sized firm, how do you operate in China or India or Africa? You know what, those issues look exactly the same to Canadian versus U.S. firms.
You have a stellar career at The University of Michigan. What was it that made you say ‘I want to come to Ivey?’
I’ve always been interested in being a dean. My father was a dean; he was a physicist so he was a dean of Arts and Sciences at Creighton University.
At Michigan, I worked very closely with the dean’s office. I headed up a lot of the global activities, and, for quite a while, have been fascinated with business schools as an organizational challenge, as a business. Not that you run it just like a business, but there’s a set of interesting set of administration things that are very different than corporate life. I thought it would be an interesting challenge.
For most of my career, even when I was a junior faculty member, some of my mentors said I had a talent for administration and I should think about doing that at some point. The timing is right, I recently turned 50 and usually when a school is looking for a dean, they’re looking for someone with the potential to do 10 years. It’s something I had always thought I’d like to do at some point in my life.
If I’m ever going to do it, it’s hard to think of a better fit than this.
Are there any trends you see going forward in business education?
There are a couple big trends.
One of them, and I’m talking North America, not Canada specific, is, because of the financial downturn, many students are questioning the value of a full-time MBA. It’s not only the tuition, but do you want to leave the workforce for two years, or in the case of Ivey for one yea? So there’s a bit of an opportunity cost with that.
Ivey is well positioned because well before the downturn, Ivey made the decision to, first, go from a two-year to a one-year MBA, which changes the economics a bit by making it more affordable. The other thing Ivey chose to do was to build up its HBA. It went from 250-300 students to now it’s about 1,200 over two years. And that’s really the sweet spot. Ivey was ahead of the curve, both in shortening the format of the MBA and growing the size of its HBA.
At almost all the top schools, applications are either down, or flat, and there is a lot of technological innovation with some people fascinated with the massive online open courses. I don’t think that’s a threat, but technological innovation is starting to interrupt higher education. People know this is a disruptive trend and they don’t know exactly where it’s going.
There are a lot of opportunities to use technology as a complement to what happens in the classroom, but I don’t see it as a substitute.
I firmly believe in case education and participant-centred education where you discuss things, not just read a book. That doesn’t translate well online. The trick for Ivey, and other case discussion-based schools, is to figure out are there some types of things we can move online, and what that does is frees up classroom time to really do what we do best, and I think that will enhance the competitive advantage of schools like Ivey.
Ivey has not had a purely academic dean in some time. Do you see any sort of advantage in this?
There are pros and cons. I think most schools appoint academic deans, but a large part of a dean’s job is outward facing, dealing with alumni, donors or corporations. So, it’s a business type job. There are many non-academic deans who are quite successful, but if you’re not academic, it does create some challenges in meeting the faculty, just because if you’re a junior faculty member and you’re spending your life trying to get articles published, it’s easier to identify with someone who’s been through that process.
There are also a lot of academics who become deans who don’t succeed. You need a person who can kind of bridge that gap a bit, but I don’t see that as a fundamental decision. When the search committee went out and cast a broad net looking for both traditional academics and non-traditional academics, I’d like to think they said they were looking for excellence and settled on me (laughing).
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