Jim Bradford—Passing the Baton

What do you say about a 40-year career in both the private sector and academia in just a couple of paragraphs?

From the Spring 2013 edition of Vanderbilt Business



Jim Bradford
Jim Bradford

After nine years as dean of the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, Jim Bradford is stepping down from his position at the end of the academic year in June. Jim recently discussed some of the highlights of his time as dean with

Vanderbilt Business magazine. He also laid out some of the broad areas he thinks will shape Owen in its next era of leadership. Here’s Jim in his own words.

On Passages

When we were writing the announcement that I’d be stepping down, it felt at times like crafting my own obituary. What do you say about a 40-year career in both the private sector and academia in just a couple of paragraphs? It reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie.

What’s been great fun and interesting is visiting with alumni. My message to them is simply that this is an incredible school worthy of their time, energy and support. And in that process, I’ve greatly enjoyed hearing how Owen has influenced people’s dreams and how appreciative they are of the education they received here.

Of course, anytime there’s change you’ll find pockets of worry. But I tell people this is a team sport, that whatever course a new dean charts, the intimate, collaborative culture of Owen will carry the school forward. That’s one of the most valuable lessons the alumni taught me when I started my tenure: Make whatever changes are necessary to help the school thrive, but don’t lose the culture.

On Strategy

I believe the school—or any organization—has to be guided by two things. First, it needs a mission or a vision that works for it. What are we about? What are we doing? Second, there needs to be a sustainable business model that allows for smooth functioning. If those two priorities get out of whack, it doesn’t matter how great the mission is if you can’t make it work financially. Likewise, if you are rudderless and just go where the wind blows, you might get through in good times, but if you forget who you are and what you’re doing, you won’t be able to make it through in hard times.

For me personally, it has been gratifying to see the Leadership Development Program reach the levels it has. It’s sustainable and it’s something that we’re now being noted for by incoming students, employers and peer schools. We’ve also been fortunate that—starting with the Accelerator program in 2004, the Health Care MBA and MS Finance degree in 2005, then adding a Master of Accountancy, Master of Management in Health Care and the Americas MBA—all these new programs continue to thrive. They may need to morph over time to accommodate what the global economy demands. But I feel like we have met an obligation to build programs that business wants.

On Priorities for the Last 100 Days

The last 100 days are a wonderful time to look back at what has been accomplished and what’s still left to do. When I began thinking about this notion of the last 100 days, I remembered when I sent my own kids off to college. As a parent, you want to impart every article of wisdom that you can. Of course, you can’t do that in the last hour—the morals and values you instill have to begin at a very young age.

So while I certainly can’t plot a strategy for Dean Johnson, I want to do whatever I can to leave Owen in the best condition I possibly can. Right now that means communicating just how strong this school is. You can see that in the quality of our faculty, our students, and our staff. The rankings have all validated our strengths as well.

Bradford (center) joined students for the last Thursday Social at Owen in April. He also presented the 100% Owen Clash of the Class Trophy to the Class of 2014.
Bradford (center) joined students for the last Thursday Social at Owen in April. He also presented the 100% Owen Clash of the Class Trophy to the Class of 2014.

Second, I feel confident that as some optimism comes back into the economy—and we at least know that we’ll see some interest rate stability—our base of giving will continue to grow. It’s important to keep raising money for scholarships as a way to help recruit the best students possible.

I also have an eye on the faculty recruiting process. We have three major faculty members taking emeritus status this year—Germain Böer, Dick Daft and Hans Stoll—and I want to ensure that we are supporting and identifying the next generation of stars.

On Areas for Growth

The levers are there to ensure the continuing quality and vigor of the faculty. Along with that, you want to have the resources and facilities to attract the best students and stay plugged in to the employment market. Those types of levers can be pulled to guarantee our continued status as a highly ranked, intellectually robust school.

And when I talk about facilities, I don’t just mean a new building or additional classrooms. I also mean technology. What is Owen’s role in the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses)? Vanderbilt University and Owen have already taken a lead in this. So while technology may ultimately help lower the cost of providing an education, we want to make sure we protect the quality of what we offer. How, for example, do you stay in control of a classroom with 40,000 students? The school will need to understand those hurdles and be able to jump over them.

I think you’ll also see the nature of global education change. We’ve already come down that path somewhat with the Americas MBA, where students are having more immersive experiences and working with teams across borders, for example.

In addition to being dean of the Vanderbilt Owen School of Management, Jim Bradford is the Ralph Owen Professor of Management. He plans to take a yearlong sabbatical before returning to Owen, where he will once again teach strategy.
— Ryan Underwood