Nineteen months ago, a gift to Darden from the Sands family established 12 new faculty chairs, one of them named for me, a tremendous honor.  It prompted me to reflect on why universities do this and what responsibilities those motives imply.  Americans tend to harbor a distrust of elites and may find it hard to understand why universities create these grandees.  There are at least two reasons:

  1. To reaffirm values and aspirations we hold in common, particularly the recognition of excellent work. The appointees to faculty chairs help to signal to the rest of the community the dimensions of great performance.  Setting high standards is crucially important to the success of any organization.  For instance, the policy of the Provost of the University of Virginia states that:

“The highest levels of performance, and national and international recognition of that performance, are inherent guidelines for appointment of a chair holder.  The institutional expectation of unquestionable excellence means that the person is deemed to have achieved the highest stature and exemplary accomplishment in a discipline or area of research as judged by an independent assessment of his or her peers.”

  1. To recruit and retain top talent. A leading business school is under constant threat of poaching by other schools.  We invest a lot in developing our faculty members and want to retain them.  A faculty chair is a good retention device.  Also, doing unto others as they do unto us, we might want to recruit a star talent from another school; a faculty chair is a nice lure.  Almost everywhere, faculty compensation is a painful subject.  Where a school does not have the extra cash to acknowledge really good work, a nice title might help.[1]

These motives are good as far as they go.  But they do little to shape the expectations of the new chair holder.  Since a faculty chair is the ceiling of one’s possible advancement in rank, the risk is that having arrived, the chair holder will start to coast professionally–this is the subject of merciless satire (see Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim) and roasting criticism (see Charles J. Sykes, Profscam).  Thus, in my decade as Dean of the Darden School, I took some time with new chair holders to set some expectations.  Here is the kind of message I conveyed.

“Congratulations!  Your appointment to this chair is a wonderful affirmation of your stature in the field and your work at Darden.  Your colleagues, the Provost, President, and Board of Visitors of the University are pleased to acknowledge all you’ve done.  Go home and celebrate!  And after you’ve been able to catch your breath, let’s have a conversation about your plans for the future.  This honor carries some truths on which I would like you to reflect:

  • It’s not about you. It’s about all of us.  The school community needs you to lead for all of us.  Of course, leadership can take many forms, such as administrative, intellectual, and moral.  Help the school grow in the direction of our aspirations.   And we need you to express that leadership beyond the confines of your narrow research specialty and your discipline.  Be a spokesperson for all of us and for the business profession worldwide.
  • It’s not about small. It’s about big.  You got to this point by specialization and outreach to other specialists around the world.  Now look for ways to carry your work to wider audiences, to more urgent problems, and to bigger impact.  This chair constitutes encouragement to expand your field of focus.
  • It’s not about the past. It’s about the future. Excellence is a moving target.  What got you here won’t necessarily get you there.  Your appointment to a chair is an expression of confidence that your professional trajectory is not only sustainable in the years to come but also is resilient and adaptable to new possibilities.  Do what you can to sustain and adapt your momentum. Your record of performance is excellent.  Now, reach for new knowledge, skills, and outlook that expand your personal impact.
  • It’s not about later. It’s about sooner.  In the near future, what do you aspire to accomplish?  How will this serve the mission and goals of the school?  How can the school help you?

I look forward to this next conversation.”

These words come to me—perhaps selfishly—because of my name on this new professorship.  Like an entrepreneur with his or her name on a new company, seeing your name on something tends to concentrate one’s mind on what that thing might lead to.  In the years to come, these new Sands Family Professorships can have a transformational impact on the Darden School—if the lucky recipients embrace the four points.


[1] Appointment to a faculty chair might convey a few extra dollars to support research, but often does not increase one’s salary.