Professor Stephen Brammer completed a full circle when he became the Dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath last year – the institution where he began his career in 1998. He speaks to Stephanie Mullins, Associate Director of BlueSky Education, a specialist communications consultancy, about returning to the institution as Dean during the pandemic and what the future of business education might look like.
“My core academic values and worldview are shaped by that first 11 years or so at Bath. So when the opportunity came, it was very much a sort of homecoming.”
The University of Bath offered him his first job and, as an industrial economist, he climbed from teaching fellow to lecturer and through to full professor – then Brammer spent 10 years at other business schools in the UK and Australia but, during that time, the research centre that he’d co-founded with a colleague at Bath had prospered. The Centre of Business Organisations and Society had grown significantly and recruited excellent academics.
“As well as coming back to a school where I’d spent a lot of time in leadership positions, and as a member of academic staff, I was coming back to a school that had really built an amazing reputation in my field, and that also was something that was hugely attractive,” said Brammer, whose interests lie in stakeholder management and how organisations work with their stakeholders to solve social problems.
Yet he’d re-joined the institution during unprecedented times, in the midst of the pandemic. Taking up the post of Dean in June 2020, he says, was an odd experience. “Lockdown was still in effect. Not being able to see people face to face to make new relationships was tough but I was lucky, in a sense, that I’d maintained some strong relationships with people in the school.”
Brammer says around half of those at the school already had some knowledge of him, who he was, and his values and priorities. Yet the other half of people had never met him. He began to meet people one by one, either on campus or through Microsoft Teams, while also increasing his understanding of how the school operated. He then focused on maintaining morale, engagement and communication.
“In some ways, it was actually quite an interesting way of re-engaging,” he says, “because you get to the nuts and bolts of everything and, actually, the crisis forced that to the foreground and really helped me to understand many issues.”
It’s this considerate approach that underpins Brammer’s leadership style.
“I believe in being respectful and inclusive. Not coming to a dialogue or a relationship with preconceptions, but genuinely trying to understand the lived reality that people are in and trying to respond to those concerns. I always try to be progressive wherever I am,” he says.
“All organisations have challenges. Often, those challenges have been rather longstanding and have not been addressed. I think it’s important to say, ‘let’s not be bleak about it, but let’s be realistic and pragmatic. What are the issues that we really want to address? How are we going to do that?’ I try and deal with things transparently, fairly and openly. I believe very much in a consultative way of making progress in organisations. Academic organisations have strong cultures, you need to understand how things are currently done in order to be able to understand how change might be affected in a way that’s really positive.”
And Brammer is committed to generating an understanding by experiencing what other people are, he explains; “I try and ask people only to do the things that I am happy myself to do. So I’ve carried on with my research, I’ve put grant applications in and I’ve submitted papers, I’ve supervised PhD students, I came in and taught on campus in the pandemic with a mask on. I like to be the kind of leader where people understand that I am with them.
“Having a depth of understanding and empathy for what colleagues are seeking to do in their teaching, their research, their extra engagement, their media work, their relationships with each other – that is a massive asset.”
Bath’s progress and successes during the pandemic
As Brammer settled into his new post and the pandemic continued, the academic year also continued to roll on – and that meant keeping up with academic life, including accreditations.
EQUIS re-accreditation with EFMD was run virtually in October. Successfully achieving a five-year reaccreditation, Brammer says, was a recognition of the hard work of colleagues, academics and professionals at the school during the challenges associated with the pandemic.
“One of the most amazing and exciting things over the last 12 months or so is just how well students and staff have pulled together to ensure that the core learning and teaching mission of the school has been delivered. For example, as an institution, we ranked second in the UK in the latest National Student Survey. These were final year students that have had a fundamentally COVID-affected experience. It was amazing to see the appreciation of students.”
It’s even more striking when Brammer points out that communication within universities could often be improved: “We really try to maintain open lines of communication with staff and students. We had a positive experience in the school, navigated uncertainty when there weren’t definitive answers to things and, nonetheless, have a productive dialogue.”
From student liaison committees to twice weekly all-staff meetings with the Dean, it’s clear that communication really is a priority at Bath.
“I think the pandemic brought us, as a community, together and strengthened those bonds of communication and mutual understanding.”
Brammer also believes it’s prompted innovation at the institution, especially in engaging more deeply with alumni. They’ve run an impressive set of events virtually, and much more frequently. These have been so successful that they’re planned to carry on well into the future.
“I was keen that we put a lot more attention into celebrating successes,” he says. “Sharing research, encouraging colleagues to get more involved with the media, and celebrating and recognising their work. We need to be reminded that our engagement and involvement with our external communities and partners is also really important. I think we’ve done a really good job in raising the profile of that activity within the school and supporting colleagues to tell that story much more persuasively.
“It’s been exciting to see the genuinely progressive and innovative things that have emerged with the pandemic rather than just seeing this as a period of coping.”
Looking to the future
Something that Brammer is particularly looking forward to is their new state-of-the-art School of Management building. He expects to be in towards the end of the year or early next year. “It will be a magnificent facility for students and staff. It’s going to be amazing for new research laboratories, great spaces for student entrepreneurship, incredible new teaching facilities, space for all staff and academics. Bringing our community together under one roof with amazing facilities that are really inspiring.”
He acknowledges the view of some that real estate, location and physical assets are becoming much less important but, at Bath, they’ve always benefited from a strong sense of community and having a World Heritage City on the doorstep.
“Are we in this post-building world?” He asks. “Well, we are and we’re not. We’re all much more digitally connected but, actually, our community still gains enormous inspiration from the fact that we’re all here together.”
He believes that institutions must work out how buildings and locations add value. Beyond that, Brammer believes that many more new programmes – both online and in-person – will be interdisciplinary.
“I think the careers of the future are not single discipline careers to the extent that they’ve ever been. Blending disciplines to generate really novel powerful programmes, at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, I think, is a big part of our future. One of the things we’ve learned is that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to pedagogy. That is something that we really want to respond to and build upon.”
There’s also a shift occurring in the ways in which people acquire skills and knowledge through their career, Brammer says, consistent with whatever their current contemporary career needs are.
“We have huge opportunities to meet that much more diverse range of learning needs, through a much more diverse range of platforms, products, technologies, and so on,” he says, while also commenting that people will always want undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and MBAs. “I think all of the decline of that is rather overblown.
“What is changing is that attitudes to learning, topping up and continuing to develop oneself very purposefully through a career is much more salient for people. There is a much greater expectation in many professional fields of practice to continuously challenge oneself and acquire new bundles of skills and insights, and even relearn things that you’ve forgotten. That will require new partnerships, new technologies, all sorts of things that are exciting and innovative. The school is really well placed to be a key player in those opportunities.”