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Dean’s Column

Cat and Turtle

My first priority as Dean is to consolidate the gains that Bob Joss made in his decade leading the GSB. We’ll continue to refine the new curriculum. We must not only continue to build the new campus but ensure that it is a dynamic space when we move in next academic year. And we’ll continue to forge new collaborations with the other schools at Stanford. We must do all of this while continuing to look for new opportunities to develop principled critical analytic thinkers who can change the world.

One of the personal challenges I face is figuring out which of the many activities I have enjoyed so much in my previous role to hold on to. One that I concluded I simply could not give up this year was teaching the Critical Analytical Thinking (CAT) course. So this fall I am teaching two sections of 16 students with Lisa Schwallie, a director of the MBA Program, with whom I have twice before taught this class.

The first section shows up at my house on Thursday evening and settles into our living room. Those who come early grab the couches; the others get the folding chairs. Our black lab, Turtle (named by my eldest daughter, Amber, currently an MBA2 at the GSB), makes his rounds sniffing and wagging his tail. We spend 90 minutes on the topic of the day before we are joined for a casual dinner by the second section. After dinner it is the second group’s turn.

The assignments deal with thorny issues on which the students must take a position. Lisa and I will have read and graded the three-page papers they turned in the night before. We thus have a very good sense of where the class has come out on a particular issue. In the first session the question is: “What should Google do in China?” If Google keeps its servers there, it is subject to state control over the content. If it pulls its servers out, it avoids that but the quality of the service is impaired. And, remember, Google’s mantra is “Don’t be evil.” Lisa or I will say, “Alex, it is clear that you think Google should stay in China. Please briefly provide your argument.” And then, “Jessica, you are on the other side of the issue. Explain what you think is wrong with Alex’s argument and then present your own.” At that point the rest of the group is eager to jump in and we facilitate a discussion of the key issues. The second session asks the students to argue for their favored approach to regulating the credit-rating agencies in light of the financial crisis.

But the discussion of the specific topic is only our secondary objective. The main points are to get students to understand what makes for a strong, logical argument (within a complex, sometimes ambiguous situation); to articulate these arguments orally and in writing; and to defend them logically. As part of the process the students also learn to analyze others’ arguments and to see points in common and in difference with them. Several of the CAT topics challenge the students’ notions of what principled leadership means. Real-life managerial decision-making requires choices among difficult alternatives.

As the quarter progresses I will have been able to tell how much my students benefit from this training in critical analytical thinking from the improvement in their papers and oral argumentation in class. But the even more rewarding affirmation comes when the students bring these skills to bear in other courses by presenting cogent strategies that are well argued or implementation plans that are rigorous and demonstrate principled critical analytical thinking.

My 32 CAT students are also my advisees. Lisa and I counsel them on class choices, and we are their first port of call for broader issues related to their GSB experience. They get to know me not only as a professor and dean but also as a person with outside interests and passions (and a very affectionate dog named Turtle). As a result many of my advisees stay in touch. Just tonight I received an email from one of my CAT students from the inaugural 2007 class telling me about the job he just landed. (Congrats, Faisal!) Any wonder I am teaching it again this year?

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