Robert Helsley, UBC Sauder School of Business | BCBusiness
Robert Helsley returns to UBC after four years at Berkeley, filling the post Daniel Muzyka had held for 13 years.
For the three new deans who have recently taken the reins at B.C.'s MBA schools, preparing grads for business in the 21st century is far from an exact science.
UBC Sauder School of Business
Among the artwork hung in Robert Helsley’s office at the Sauder School of Business is a prominently displayed panorama of the Vancouver skyline at dusk. The painting’s image of Yaletown’s twinkling towers reflected in False Creek is nearly as arresting as the brilliant sunshine bathing the UBC campus outside Helsley’s office on this crisp fall day. Rain or shine, day or night, Helsley is a true West Coaster at heart.
“My wife and I came here in 1984 and of course fell in love with Vancouver and its people, as everybody does,” says Sauder’s newly minted dean, glancing out the window with the satisfied gaze of someone who’s happy to be home.
Although Helsley, 56, has spent the bulk of his career at UBC, working his way up to a previous high point as an associate dean, his turn at the top follows a four-year sojourn at the University of California, Berkeley.
Though relatively short in the context of his decades-long career, Helsley’s time in the Bay Area as professor and chair in real estate development and co-chair of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, made a profound impact on the educator. He has taken several lessons with him to his leadership role at UBC.
Born in Tennessee and raised in Portland, Oregon, Helsley earned an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Oregon before completing a master’s and PhD at Princeton. After nearly 25 years in Canada, however, his return to the U.S. in 2008 coincided with the economic meltdown, proving particularly poignant for the academic.
“It was especially interesting being in San Francisco as somebody who’s worked in the economics of cities and real estate markets and seeing what has happened there,” he recalls. “Especially to the outlying communities that were just decimated by the foreclosure crisis in California and the impacts that that subsequently had on local governments.”
This front-row seat to the crisis caused Helsley to re-evaluate the role business schools play in the broader economic picture and the responsibility those institutions have to the communities they serve. Not only do business schools need to ensure students graduate with a broad understanding of the impacts of economic policy, Helsley says, but universities need to encourage a shift in values in business culture.
“Business schools need to do more to focus on what have been non-traditional aspects of business that are growing in importance,” he says. “These would be things like business ethics, innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainability in business practices and contributing to sustainability goals more broadly in society.” Sauder, he says, has started enacting that shift with a new MBA program that launched this year, which focuses primarily on those values.
But it’s not just cautionary tales that Helsley has brought back across the border. San Francisco, with its booming high-tech sector in Silicon Valley, has him determined to ensure Sauder is strategically placed to support the emerging tech clusters here. While he’ll still need to build on Sauder’s solid international reputation, Helsley intends to devote some energy to developing a locally based knowledge economy revolving around UBC and Metro Vancouver’s post-secondary institutions.
“An issue that we would like to do more with here in British Columbia is to do everything we can to ensure the university can be an engine for economic growth and economic development in this province,” he says. “The experience of the South Bay and San Francisco or Boston, or any of the other high-tech clusters in the world, is that the research, scholarship and innovation that comes out of the universities are central to that.”
With two grown sons in the high-tech field – one works for a video game developer in Vancouver while the other works for Google in Silicon Valley – Helsley has both a professional and personal interest in seeing B.C.’s fledgling high-tech sector reach a tipping point. And that means laying the foundations for long-term success.
“I guess one thing people need to understand about this process is it’s a slow process,” he points out. “Silicon Valley – the events that eventually led to the creation of what we now think of as the high-tech cluster – began in the 1940s. So it’s sort of a 60- or 70-year influence, it’s not a 10-year influence,” he says.
Eventually though, clusters reach a critical mass of self-sustaining, like-minded businesses, which, Helsley says, will become self-reinforcing if the right conditions are in place. “And that’s the area where the universities can contribute – by contributing ideas, innovative business development and then the human capital and expertise that’s needed to let firms grow.”
UVic Peter B. Gustavson School of Business
Helsley’s counterpart at UVic’s business school has his sights set firmly on developing globally minded graduates who can see beyond the bottom line.
Growing up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a young Saul Klein learned early on the value of education. For the globe-trotting new dean of the UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, education was the ticket out of segregated Africa and mandatory army service in support of an oppressive regime. “There was still a white-backed minority government,” says Klein, 54, recalling his youth in what was then Rhodesia. “From one [end] it was a very privileged existence. At the same time it was also something that was clearly artificial, that was clearly unsustainable.”
As with many in his generation, the thought of taking up arms to support an unjust colonial legacy led Klein to plan a hasty escape after graduating high school in the 1970s. “At that point the choice was, do you stay in this country and fight to protect white privilege, or leave? To me it was a fairly easy decision.”
Klein went to Israel, where he earned an undergraduate degree in economics before embarking on a career in academia that has seen him touch down in Toronto, Boston, North Carolina, Singapore and South Africa. He finally settled down, landing in Victoria in 2001 as the university’s Lansdowne Professor of International Business.
While B.C.’s quaint capital may not boast the international cachet of some of his former academic haunts, Klein argues it probably should. “Victoria is unusual in that it is a migrant community,” he points out. “Victoria might be this small place off the West Coast, but it’s very international in terms of its composition, and to me that’s meant that people, I think, intuitively appreciate that connectedness.”
Whether it’s among his own students and faculty, or the student body at his teenaged son’s high school, Klein says Victoria is a cosmopolitan microcosm well-suited to nurturing globally minded business innovators. True, the city lacks a large corporate sector, but it boasts a thriving entrepreneurial high-tech industry that isn’t constricted by international borders or physical location. “Those businesses certainly see their growth as international,” says Klein.
However, he’s aware Victoria’s strengths are not immediately obvious in an international pool of roughly 13,000 business schools. Klein is quick to acknowledge his first, and most formidable, task as dean will be elevating the school’s reputation out of relative obscurity. “My challenge is really to take the school to the next level,” says Klein. “We’re a small school off the west coast of Canada and you get outside of B.C. and there’s not a lot of awareness of who we are.”
Foremost among his objectives will be reframing the school’s size and location as strengths rather than weaknesses. By highlighting its unique programs and strong foundations laid by his predecessor, Ali Dastmalchian, Klein hopes to advertise Gustavson’s ability to meet the business objectives of the 21st century. “The reality is that we’re doing stuff that’s amazing compared to other business schools; it’s very innovative,” he says. “We’re a real jewel. It’s just, how do we move past being the best little school nobody ever heard of?”
Victoria’s sizeable population of retirees, Klein points out, offers an incredible advantage to Gustavson students. Far from being your typically subdued seniors, he says, Victoria’s retirees are accomplished, experienced business professionals of nearly every stripe. The school has tapped that resource to create its business mentorship program.
Meanwhile, mandatory academic-exchange and study-abroad programs in non-English-speaking countries give students applied knowledge of international markets. A recently signed agreement to aid in administrative reform in Tunisia is just one example of the potential for Gustavson faculty and staff to effect real change in emerging markets.
“Maybe it’s because of my background, but to me that direct experience is critical,” Klein says, recalling his own experience teaching in post-apartheid South Africa at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand. “There was a major focus on businesses to become more aware and able to compete globally,” he says. “And the business schools had recognized they needed to play a key role in making that happen. That’s really why I went there originally.”
Similar situations are unfolding now in North Africa, the Middle East and South America, where UVic is forging connections and expanding its international focus to reach beyond the U.S. and Asia.
With the global political and economic climate in a state of profound flux, Klein says Gustavson’s slogan – The World Looks Different From Here – is more apt now than ever. But this dean won’t allow his students and staff to simply parrot the pithy tagline from the safety of an ivory tower. He’ll be pushing them out the door to go and see for themselves.
What can a management student gain from dabbling in theatre studies? A great deal, if you ask Roger Sugden, the new dean of the Faculty of Management at UBC Okanagan. A man with a self-professed passion for crossing boundaries, Sugden, who joins the Kelowna campus from Scotland’s University of Stirling, where he also helmed the management school, can barely contain his enthusiasm over the school’s interdisciplinary focus.
The Faculty of Management’s two-plus-two approach, which sees students spend their first two years in general studies before specializing in business and management, prepares them to think outside the box in the business world, Sugden says that “in order to really open that up, we want to work closely with the likes of creative and critical studies, so that we’re enabling and fostering the imagination of students – not in the narrow management sense, but in a broader sense that feeds all those entrepreneurial opportunities.”
From studying theatre, for example, management students might learn non-verbal communication skills, gain exposure to non-profit business models and access a new arena for self-expression. “It’s potentially a terribly rewarding experience,” says the dean.
In fact, it was the potential for self-expression that drew Sugden to Canada after long-term stints teaching in the U.K., Italy and the U.S. Canada, he says, has a reputation for fostering self-expression and valuing social development, while its relative strength in the global economy makes this country an interesting place for the business-minded to observe.
Although a much smaller campus than his previous posts, UBC Okanagan, Sugden asserts, has all the right ingredients to produce creative, engaged entrepreneurs with the creativity to transcend traditional business silos. That’s the number one skill future grads will need to spur economic activity in the B.C. Interior and beyond. “There is an emphasis here on looking forward, creating things, doing things – doing things that matter.”