UD business dean says flexibility, adaptability key to success

Bruce Weber
Dean Bruce Weber, who came to Delaware from the London Business School where he taught M.B.A. courses, said he wants to prepare University of Delaware graduates to adapt to changing workplaces and changing economies.

By Sam Waltz

Founding Publisher

The page has been turned at the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business & Economics.

Entrepreneurship — with a focus on the disruptive business model — is the new rival there to the traditional management and corporate studies, according to Bruce Weber, the Chicago-born Harvard and Penn Wharton scholar who became dean of the Lerner College in August 2011.

“In both higher education and business, we’re preparing for a future we cannot forecast,” Weber said in a recent interview.

“You could build the Maginot Line again, but we need to avoid that,” Weber said, alluding to the fortifications France built along its borders with Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg before World War II, a physical barrier against invasion that technology made an anachronism as soon as it was built.

“We can’t accomplish it by copying Silicon Valley or Tucson,” Weber added. “The future is about building a base of solid business-minded thinkers who are flexible and adaptive.”

“One thing I’d like Lerner to do is get people comfortable with disruptive biz models, models like Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, and the like.  It’s going to happen, and it’s happening at a faster rate.”

“Our Delaware economy has been more dependent on the established firms like DuPont and the banks. That [the disruptive models] is the way it is in Silicon Valley, in Massachusetts, and a variety more dynamic markets, and it will come more to Delaware, or should.”

“There’s not one impediment to it, but rather it needs a whole array of support mechanisms; among them, capital, managers who understand the adaptive process, and the supportive environment.”

“Frankly, there’s a cost of not doing it,” Weber added, almost as a foreshadowing of the crossroads to which Delaware’s economy — and economic development issues — is approaching.

Weber came to Delaware from the London Business School, where he taught MBA courses for eight years, including IT management and decision models since 2003, and more recently had chaired its Management Sciences program. Before that, he was an associate professor at Baruch College from 1999-2003, and at NYU’s Stern School of Business from 1992-98.

After a childhood in Chicago until age 10, Weber’s family resettled in Boston, where he remained for years, earning an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics at the Harvard College in 1984, before joining a professor at McKinsey. That McKinsey mentor ultimately encouraged him to return to academia, and Weber earned a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences in 1991 at the University of Pennsylvania.

Administrators and academics seem rarely to be asked about their own doctoral study, so Weber was delighted to digress about his choice of decision theory for a field of study, including a discussion of the Nobel Award-winning decision scientists March and Simon. His dissertation explored the levels of computer trading, noting that the London Exchange was one of the first to close its physical trading floor.

Weber concurred in an interviewer’s assessment of the unwelcomeness in higher education a generation ago, before the mid- to late 1980s, for studies of leadership, entrepreneurship and “softer issues,” but he noted that the times indeed have changed.

“When you get hired into an entry-level position today, you’re going to have to be capable of self-organizing, self-managing, leading projects, leading teams, interfacing with vendors, and that’s not optional any more. The management training programs, where companies invested six months to two years, are a thing of the past.”

“Even recently, we had to have people contributing productively to the employer in month number two, after a month of orientation. Today, at Lerner, we want to prepare people to be ready on day one. That’s a luxury the companies don’t have, so we try to do it here.”

Weber mentioned a number of Lerner innovations; among them, its stock trading lab, its Blue Hen Investment Club, a mentoring program and others.

“That way, students can point to a lot of examples of their own leadership, their own training,” he added.

The Lerner College of Business & Economics — which the University of Delaware renamed for Alfred Lerner upon significant contributions by MBNA bank and its late founder Charles Cawley — conferred more than 300 graduate degrees (M.S., M.B.A., Ph.D.) in the academic year just ended, with another 815 undergraduate degrees.

In 2015, Lerner received 5,862 applications, with an entering class of 609 students. As of 2015, approximately 3,000 undergraduate students enrolled in the Lerner College.

Weber’s office reports that applications to graduate programs have increased, with graduate enrollment at an all-time high of 1,080 students, with a 72 percent increase in enrollment from 2012 to 2015. About 75 percent of Lerner M.B.A. students attend on a part-time basis and work in the Tri-State area. Within nine months of graduation, 87 percent of Lerner’s class of 2015 had found employment, with another 7 percent pursuing graduate education.

 Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics
A birds-eye view of the lobby of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics on the University of Delaware campus in Newark.

Lerner employs 136 full-time faculty members, 32 professional staff members and 16 salaried staff members, and the Lerner College offers five of the 25 most popular undergraduate majors at UD, among them:

  • Finance, chaired by Helen Bowers, where the focus is on understanding risk and managing finance in a way that helps organizations make the best possible business decisions.
  • Marketing and Business Administration, chaired by Stewart Shapiro, which focuses on a variety of interdisciplinary programs, including entrepreneurship, technology innovation, international business studies, marketing and management.
  • Accounting and MIS (Management Information Systems), chaired by Scott Jones, providing a premier source accounting and data grads.
  • HRIM (Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management), chaired by Sheryl Kline, where the focus is on experience-driven learning — often using the university’s own Courtyard Marriott Hotel — in building industry-ready skills.
  • Economics, chaired by Jim Butkiewicz, where the focus is on the intersection of social sciences, business and public policy.

Particularly notable among the four new graduate programs, three new undergraduate programs and two new minors added in the last five years are the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship and the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.

The Corporate Governance programs features arguably one of Delaware’s most quoted academics, professor Charles Elson, who seems to be quoted almost weekly in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere on a variety of newsworthy corporate issues.

The Weinberg Center’s mission is to provide a forum for business leaders, members of corporate boards, shareholders, the judiciary, the legal community, academics, students and others interested in corporate governance issues to interact, learn and teach, with the goal of positively impacting and improving the field of corporate governance.

Center programs, publications and academic research have helped to shape and influence numerous corporate governance debates and developments on a national and international level.

It’s the Horn Program, though, that is attracting more Delaware business community attention. Headed by Prof. Dan Freeman, the program’s offerings emphasize experiential learning, evidence-based entrepreneurship and active engagement with entrepreneurs, business leaders and members of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Participation in Horn Program courses and co-curricular activities provides students with the knowledge, skills, connections and access to resources needed to successfully manifest innovation and thrive in a rapidly changing world.   

In decline at UD and elsewhere is the Executive M.B.A. program, which it discontinued two years ago. “They’re very cyclical,” said Weber. “They’re usually supported by business, and tuition reimbursement is one of the easiest budget items to cut, as does sending out people for skill development.”

Weber acknowledged that the movement to a doctorate-of-business-administration academic study program is in its infancy, with one offered locally at Wilmington University over the last five years, but he said he does not see that in Lerner’s future.

“A few schools have set up similar programs, the D.B.A., as part-time exec doctorates. Case Western, in Cleveland is one.  A group of managers and execs can benefit from that, but it requires a very low student-faculty ratio, and I don’t think we at Lerner would be interested at this point,” he said.

“Our selfish interest is becoming the business college of choice for undergrad and grad students,” Weber said. “We have a great foundation at Delaware, a faculty that is at the cutting edge, a great research edge, with an important distinction that our faculty are researchers and thought leaders.”

“What we’ll be able to give back to the region is the platform, the locus, for business leaders to get together, to create agendas, to debate agendas, to get Delaware leaders together on issues like how do we make this a place where people get together,” he added.

“Delaware has gotten comfortable,” Weber said. “What they [public, civic and business leaders] and we need to think through is, what are the impediments to growing a business in Delaware? What would have kept people and jobs in Delaware?”

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