HOTSEAT- Sticky business: Bruner's battle of the B-schools

Darden students get a sticky education, and the UVA school's dean, Robert Bruner, insists that's a good thing.  "A sticky lesson stays with you," he says, talking Socratic, case-study method. "Our teaching sticks." 

That's no doubt one of the reasons MBAs shell out $100K for two years at the Darden School of Business. 

Another: "Companies need people who can lead," says Bruner. "These attributes are not given to everyone, but they can be learned." More importantly, they can be learned at Darden. And, he adds, the companies that recruit at Darden say that's what they value most.

Business schools are big business, and it's the dean's job to keep Darden in the top tier. "There are over 600 accredited MBA programs in the U.S.," he says. "Darden School is in the highest echelons." 

Indeed, Darden just ranked number 13 in this year's Wall Street Journal top picks, edging out Bruner's own alma mater, Harvard Business School.

 The dean recently celebrated his first anniversary in his new job at the school where he had taught for 23 years. And for all his trumpeting of Darden as an incubator of leadership skills, "Nothing adequately prepares you for being dean," he admits.

He debunks the perception that being a dean is like being a CEO handing down orders. "Truly in academic life, the dean is a servant rather than the big boss," he says, adding that his mission is to "empower, energize, reassign, and help get good people to drive the school."

It's a year that's seen him traveling around the world to raise Darden's international profile and attract students– and it resulted in the largest enrollment ever this fall. Darden is hiring new faculty, has launched a new MBA program for executives, and is getting ready to launch a capital campaign. 

The worst part of the job? He spends half his time traveling. "And I'm the focus of the complaints that don't get otherwise resolved," he says ruefully. 

Bruner initially resisted his gift for teaching, even after three professors in grad school tried to steer him that way. "I worked as a banker for a few years," he says. "I decided I wanted to teach and write."

Despite a hectic schedule– he gets up at 5:30am to work out, read, write (his last book was Deals from Hell; he won't disclose the title of his new one)– Bruner still manages to keep his finger on the pulse of the school, particularly at that venerable Darden institution, the 9:30 coffee (now held in the voluminous PepsiCo Forum), when he can chat up the students. Even on a stroll around the grounds while he's having his picture taken, students don't hesitate to approach him.

Bruner wants to dispel the misperception that rich, remote Darden is its own little ivory tower within the larger UVA ivory tower. 

"We live on the North Grounds in an extraordinarily beautiful complex," he says. "Perhaps that obscures that we're part of the university. We want to collaborate with the rest of the university."

And in Bruner's book, Darden is not a stepping stone to a cut-throat business world. "Truly we are a school of ethical, socially conscious management," he says. 

He lists companies where Darden students want to work– Goldman Sachs, Ritz Carlton, Southwest Airlines, 3M, Berkshire Hathaway– and describes them as "energizing" places that provide exceptional service, serve as good corporate citizens, and make a lot of money.

Sorta like Darden, where Bob Bruner is a company man.

Age: My birth certificate would suggest 56 years, though having been born on Halloween, there's a ghost of a chance that I'm a lot younger.

Why here? 24 years ago, Darden Professor Robert Vandell wouldn't take ‘no' for an answer. Ever since, I've seen the wisdom of his sales pitch.

What's worst about living here? The green pollen every April

Favorite hangout? Bizou Restaurant

Most overrated virtue? I think of the virtues as under-rated these days.

People would be surprised to know: I have paddled 301 miles of the James River.

What would you change about yourself? I'd find some time to spend in a hammock.

Proudest accomplishment? Professionally, the students whose lives I've changed for the better

People find most annoying about you: I'm often late.

Whom do you admire? In contemporary terms, Warren Buffett: socially-aware CEO and a phenomenal investor.

Favorite book? Too many to pick favorites, but I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.

Subject that causes you to rant? Lack of accountability; lack of initiative

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Grigory Perelman refused to accept the Fields Medal in Mathematics, saying he did not want to become a figurehead for the mathematical community. He doesn't need prizes. His accomplishments speak for themselves. Less celebrity is more.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Diminution of Pluto

What do you drive? A Boxster

In your car CD player right now: Antidote by Rockwell Church, featuring the talented lyricist Nathan Church Hubbard

Next journey? To Mexico

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Okay, I have no criminal record. Of more concern than the trouble one gets oneself in should be the trouble we make for others.

Regret: I never ran a marathon.

Favorite comfort food: Pasta with feta, olives, and tomatoes

Always in your refrigerator: Capers and parmesan cheese

Must-see TV: I'd much rather go kayaking.

Favorite cartoon: Cars by Pixar  

Describe a perfect day. Up early. Work out. Read and write in the morning. Meet with colleagues and teach. A glass of wine and dinner with my wife outside at dusk. Walk the dog. Early to bed.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Win a marathon

Who'd play you in the movie? Harrison Ford

Most embarrassing moment? When I learned that I had mispronounced a student's name for an entire semester.

Best advice you ever got? Become a teacher.

Favorite bumper sticker? "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."  And "Honk if Pluto is a planet."

Bob Bruner