Jim Bradford seeks to give MBA students a broader perspective through his new book club
by Jennifer Johnston
photo by John Russell
As the on-the-go dean of a vibrant business school – and during his previous life as a globe-trotting executive – Jim Bradford has spent a great deal of time “hanging in the air” on his way to meet business leaders, corporate executives, entrepreneurs and heads of nonprofit organizations, many of whom are successful Owen Graduate School of Management alumni.
Bradford’s favorite reads on long flights are thought-provoking tomes that help reorder his thinking, challenge his perspective and expand his world view. He began to consider how to impress a similar passion for reading and thinking on business school students, who often are absorbed in their intense courses of study.
The resulting exploration, which began with a summer reading selection for entering MBA students, has morphed into the Dean’s Book Club, which meets once each mod (the academic period at Owen) to discuss influential books that encourage higher-order thinking. The idea is to allow students the opportunity to voluntarily supplement their common course of study with experiential reading that might help them gain an understanding of history, world politics, religion and societal conflicts.
“Everyone’s invited,” Bradford said, including staff. “It’s not a hard-stop group of people. Some people come regularly, and then they have a slammed mod and can’t make it happen.”
The book club is usually held early in the mod, before the work gets too intense. The group discusses what it found interesting about a book, selects favorite passages and offers criticisms.
“We ask the ultimate marketing question: Would you recommend this book?” Bradford said.
“What I find substantive about this exercise is that it sends the clear message that we’re not only trying to teach a body of knowledge, but, we hope, to change their perspective,” he said. “Particularly, I think the intent of this is to have people look outside the environment they get in while they’re at graduate school and think a little more broadly.”
Future leaders – the ones who are going to solve the complex problems of their age – will have to be able to add to the core base of knowledge they gain in business school a certain perspective and wisdom, as well as the ability to analyze intricate problems in a sometimes ambiguous environment, Bradford said.
“When I meet with executives in my travels and we discuss their particular industry or enterprise, the conversation often turns to the preparedness of graduates of America’s MBA programs and their readiness for post-university work life,” he said. “Employers rightly assume that excellent business programs attract candidates who have the intellectual DNA to learn and study.”
The best programs, such as Vanderbilt’s, provide a deep understanding of finance, economics, accounting, marketing, operations management, strategy and other de rigueur graduate business school subjects.
The curriculum is supplemented with multiple courses focusing on everything from teamwork and leadership to negotiations, decision theory and cross-border/cross-cultural business methodology. Bradford passionately believes that the ability to seek out challenging intellectual reading – of all types, in all genres – is critical.
“We must create a sense of flexibility in learning,” he said.
The tendency to specialize, while it has its place in business and other professions, is a barrier to maintaining a sense of broad purpose and perspective.
“I don’t think this tendency is limited to business school. I’ve watched it happen in medicine and engineering and some in the arts and sciences,” he said. “Pretty soon in your working life, if you do a good job, you’re assigned to run teams and manage organizations and you find yourself less often employing a large body of knowledge. If you’re a doctor, you stop practicing so much and you’re now head of a department. Or you’re in a design firm, but you’re spending your time on financials and budgets and managing people.”
Layered upon this tendency to specialize is a diverse and increasingly global culture. The degree of difficulty involved in solving today’s complex problems has risen exponentially in the past few decades, Bradford said.
“I think the really great thinkers and leaders of life have a pretty broad perspective. Life and education have forced them to draw on lots of different pools of knowledge,” he said.
One of the most important? Reading, of course.
Bradford’s favorite outcome from a book club discussion is a student who says he didn’t like the book, but it changed his way of looking at things.
“That’s what you’re trying to gain,” he said. “These are very smart, intellectually curious students. I found them to enjoy looking at cultures and experiences they hadn’t yet had.”
Where do his book selections come from? Recommendations are never far away and include suggestions from colleagues, students and his wife Susan, who devours nonfiction, fiction and award-winning writing. Favorites are works by authors Wallace Stegner, E.B. White and Wendell Berry.
What he doesn’t like are the many books, especially in the business world, that “take one idea and illustrate it 300 times,” Bradford said. There’s a place for those, he concedes, but he’s looking for more stimulating reading.
A great example is River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, in which a young Ivy League graduate goes to a coal mining town in China for a couple years’ teaching experience. At one point in the book, he tells a story about behaving as the quintessential ugly American, reacting in a strong way to an insult.
“I thought it was telling of the author that he would share a less-than-flattering story about himself. My students liked it, too,” Bradford said. “I find that each person’s experience with a book is different, and the sharing of those experiences adds richness to our discussions.”
On tap for the book club’s Jan. 19 meeting is A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson.
Bradford doesn’t hide the pleasure he gains in discussing books with fellow knowledge seekers, no matter their age difference.
“It’s pure joy,” he said.
More Recommended Reading
by Dean Jim Bradford
A Timbered Choir
by Wendell Berry
A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of An Age
by William Manchester
Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner
Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner
Elements of Style
by William Strunk and E.B. White
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang
by Wendell Berry
Letters of E.B. White
by E.B. White
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin