Flying High at Babson: Len Schlesinger Wants to Create the Equivalent of the Airline Industry’s Star Alliance for Teaching Entrepreneurship

9/29/09Follow @bbuderi

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to extend our capability to deal with social enterprises and their development.” Many business schools now have courses, even academic institutes, built around subjects like sustainability and social responsibility, he says. But the problem is that schools typically “deal with them in ways that keep them on the periphery of core business properties.”

Says Schlesinger, “Are there sustainability issues? Yes. Is the solution to intellectually separate them and deal with them serially? The answer is no.” His view is that rather than considering these as special topics, they are “better dealt with as issues of ‘just business’” and must be incorporated into basic business practices. To help with that, business school curricula needs to be revised, and core practices need to be changed to focus on what he calls a “simultaneity of positive outcomes”—meaning building profitable business that also give back to the community and take care of the environment.

3. These new fundamentals of entrepreneurship and business should be taught globally.

Schlesinger’s idea is to partner with universities and other institutions in the academic equivalent of the airline industry’s Star alliance. Universities don’t share route structures, of course. But, explains Schlesinger, they often “do share services, etc, and believe in a world of entrepreneurs and people, planet, profit. What we’re looking for are just a few friends who think very much like the way we do, who have enormous amounts of energy to extend these ideas in a variety of ways.”

Such partnerships could involve sharing students, faculty, and curricula—and soon after arriving at Babson, Schlesinger got to work on the idea. Faculty volunteers divided into eight groups that worked “feverishly” this past summer, and are busy developing and fine-tuning these and other ideas this fall, he says. “And in the middle of all of that, my provost Shahid Ansari and I have been flying all around the world, pigeon-holing, cajoling, and nudging, looking for like-minded partners.” He calls this an “intervention,” because “it’s not the natural act” of academic institutions to collaborate. Still, he says, the reception from both foreign governments and educational institutions “exceeds my wildest expectations.” And he believes it will likely lead to some announcements later this year.

Not Playing Defense

Schlesinger says he was fortunate that Babson gets most of its operating budget from tuition and not its endowment like many institutions. Still, during last year’s meltdown, Babson’s endowment dropped from about $216 million to $165 million—a $51 million, or 25 percent, hit that, because of the way the endowment is tied to the budget, meant losing about $2.5 million from operating funds beginning three years down the road. But Schlesinger was able to convince the faculty and staff that if they could begin filling the hole right away, the school could more readily absorb that blow and focus on growth. Within two weeks, the staff had rallied around proposals for providing several million dollars of operating expense reductions, he says.

As a result, Schlesinger says, “While everyone else was dealing with uncertainty, I was able to go to the community before Christmas, and say that unless the whole world falls apart, no layoffs.” After the holidays, officials were able to free up enough room in the operating budget that people could get raises of up to 2 percent or $2,000, whichever was lower. “Not a normal raise, but certainly a recognition of the fact that people are working hard,” says Schlesinger.

All this has enabled school officials to focus on longer-term issues of revenue generation—such as growing enrollment and attracting new foundation support. Schlesinger calls those problems “much more fun” than cutting budgets for the next several years.

So is Babson out to become the best business school in the Boston area, period? Schlesinger says he isn’t trying to compete with Harvard, MIT, et al, as a free standing business school, but rather wants to focus on strengthening Babson’s unique role in teaching business under the umbrella concept of entrepreneurial thought and action. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t competing on some level. And he says he’s fortunate that he can take the offensive and work on creating growth rather than a lot of cutting. As he puts it, “Virtually none of my attention goes to playing defense right now.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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