The Social Contract and Learning at Darden

By Bob Bruner-

I welcomed the Class of 2015 to Darden on August 23rd. Here is what I said (approximately, subject to fallible recall):

By now, you’ve been welcomed many times and told how special you are and how you made the right decision to come to Darden. All of that is true. But I’m not going to go on about that.

Instead, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there were two close competitors. They were similar in virtually all respects: upbringing, natural strengths, environment, etc. But after they reached maturity, their careers diverged at first by a little, then by a lot. One grew in success, prominence and prosperity; the other languished despite repeated attempts to juice up performance with steroids of one kind or another. Scholars who studied the two were puzzled to explain why one succeeded and the other didn’t. Eventually, they settled on an explanation that to this day is influential—they said it was due to differences in the social contract. You see, this story is not about individuals; it is about nations. A social contract defines the ways in which people cooperate for mutual benefit.

The field of development economics is replete with pairwise comparisons that point to the huge impact that institutions, laws, and customs—the tangible manifestations of the social contract—make. Think about the comparison of the two Koreas; the former East and West Germany; Cuba versus Puerto Rico and so on. The social contract is a big determinant of prosperity, not only of nations, but also of the individuals within them.

I bring you that simple story to motivate your reflections on the social contract at Darden: what’s the deal in the classroom among students and between students and faculty members? What should you ask of your professors? What should your professors ask of you? How should students engage with each other? These are frankly tough questions. But the answers to these questions are what make this school truly distinctive and make your time here so transformational.

Why are you spending your time like this? I have spoken with thousands of students over the years, to ask why they came to Darden. Their replies prompt me to say that you’re here because in your personal agenda, it is the top priority; the highest-return investment you can make; the big enchilada. You’re here because there are lessons to learn here that you cannot learn elsewhere. This isn’t just getting information (names, dates, formulas)—you can get that stuff online and usually for free; you’re here to get something more. And that’s why I think you’ve made the right decision to come here and why I think it is the most important thing you can do with your life for the next 21 months. If you will engage with faculty, staff, and each other in certain ways, you will learn a new way of learning, a way that is sharply different from the conventional experiences you’ve had before, a way that will rock your world, and a way that will guide you for all time. That new way of learning is the focus of the social contract at Darden.

The new way of learning entails discovering things for yourself; making sense out of ambiguous business situations and usually conflicting bits of information. Life poses a host of questions and very few answers. Getting on with life means figuring things out for your self, making your own meaning about things. Accordingly, the way we teach is by helping students learn on their own. We do so not by giving answers, but by asking questions. How we teach is what we teach. This is an incredibly powerful approach and is as old as Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Hillel, and Mohammed. Learning takes place when you find out for yourself. Professors are there to question, challenge, nudge, probe, and excite you. When a student asked Socrates a question, Socrates usually replied with a question. Darden’s professors are likely to do so too. This will frustrate you; it will exhaust you; and it will stretch you. All of this is strengthening you for your unique destiny.

Thomas Jefferson founded this University because, in part, he wanted to advance “useful knowledge.” Like him, American culture tends to be practical, entrepreneurial, and prone to experiment with ideas. It is a culture of perpetual ferment. Americans tend not to enshrine knowledge and theories. The body of knowledge is changing at a rapid rate. What matters is mastering a method of finding out and keeping up. The process of relentless questioning and discussion teaches you this method.

The social contract at Darden requires that you trust the process. Trust that the questioning by the faculty is leading you somewhere. They want to help. And you came to study with the world’s best teachers. So, form a relationship with them that feeds your development. Don’t look for grandiose speeches, easy answers, or compliments; look for wise and candid feedback. Accept and admire professors who demand your very best. By the way, each and every one of you is capable of excellent work, so don’t doubt for a minute that you can give the faculty what amounts to “the very best.”

Another implication of the social contract at Darden has to do with mindfulness. Once, I was at a Las Vegas casino, where I was doing some scholarly research. There, hanging over the roulette table was a sign that said, “You must be present to win.” You must be present to win. This meant that you could not place your bets and then leave the table to get a drink or see a friend, and return later to pick up your winnings. You had to be present when the winnings were declared, in order to get them. So it is at Darden. You must be present to win.

What does “being present” mean? It means being mindful: self-aware of your state of mind and your impact on others. And it means being socially aware of what’s going on around you. You can’t “zone out” and get the rich transformational experience that Darden offers. Mindfulness is one of the top attributes of high-performing leaders. So this is good practice for your future. When I describe Darden as a “high touch” community, I’m referring to a community where students, faculty, and staff are present and engaged actively in the learning process. Being present is part of the social contract at Darden.

Learning at Darden isn’t a solo experience. If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask another student. And if you have mastered a subject, go out of your way to help others. Being present and engaging one another means doing your assignments not just for yourself but for the sake of your learning team; it means coming to class prepared and participating in discussions; it means supporting the Honor Code, being active in clubs, and lending leadership when our community needs it.

If you are present and engaged, you’ll discover quickly that Darden is a very diverse community. Diversity matters a lot to us because it promotes great learning experiences; it prepares you for the world you are entering; it creates a richer intellectual environment; it creates a community that our recruiters, alumni, and public expect; and it helps to fulfill our mission, to develop and inspire responsible leaders. A community that values diversity needs you to embrace diversity.

Get out of your comfort zone. Find some classmates who are very different from yourself—a different race, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender for instance—and make a serious effort to see the world through their eyes. Befriend those people. Share the Darden experience with them.

If you find yourself drawn constantly to a few classmates just like yourself, you aren’t really present. If you don’t test your assumptions about people different from yourself, you aren’t really present. If at the end of two years, your comfort zone is no larger than it is today, you have not been really present.

The social contract at Darden calls you to perform with Honor. The Honor Code at UVA is very serious. We expect your work on tests and papers to be an independent demonstration of your mastery unless you explicitly acknowledge the contributions of others. The Honor Code helps to create a community of trust in which virtually all exams are given on a take-home basis. Do not lie, cheat, steal, or plagiarize. Violations at Darden have been rare but when they occur, the consequence is expulsion. Don’t even think about testing the limits.

Unlike many other schools and universities you may know, Darden is not an ivory tower, an isolated academic world. We actively engage the profession of business; you will interact with our alums; we bring thousands of executives to grounds here each year; we immerse you in interactions with companies and executives. Darden is part of one of the great research universities of the world. And we live in one of the most desirable cities.

I ask you to assume that in dealing with those companies, communities, and people, you are always on stage. The impressions about Darden flow from the slightest actions of yours. All of us depend on the actions of each other. You are Darden’s brand. The social contract at Darden asks you to live the brand.

In conclusion, you’re here to transform yourselves. And you’ve come to the right place. Take these two years to find your true vocation, to shape a vision, and to learn the tools and concepts to enable you to have impact in the world. Sustain the social contract and you will fulfill the promise I made for a truly transformational experience:

1. Put on a new way of learning: self-discovery.

2. Trust the process.

3. Be present.

4. Embrace diversity.

5. Work with Honor.

6. Live the brand.

I wish you the very best in your time here at Darden!