Rakesh Khurana will become the dean of Harvard College in July. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard) Rakesh Khurana will become the dean of Harvard College in July. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard)

On Wednesday, Harvard College named influential leadership thinker and business school professor Rakesh Khurana to be its next dean. He will start the role in July.

Khurana, who earned his Ph.D. through a joint degree program between Harvard's business school and graduate school in 1998, has been a professor at the university since 2000. He is a professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a "co-master" of Cabot House, one of the college's residential houses for undergraduates. Yet he is most known for his work as a professor at Harvard Business School, where he teaches MBA courses in corporate governance, leadership and organizational behavior.

Khurana, who has been named to the Thinkers 50 list of global management gurus, represents the first time a faculty member with an appointment at the business school has become dean of Harvard College — "as far as we can tell and certainly within recent history," a Harvard spokesman said in an e-mail. As dean of Harvard College, Khurana will be responsible for undergraduate life at the university, overseeing everything from admissions to the administration of undergraduate curriculum to housing.

"It's an inspired choice," says Michael Useem, a professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at Wharton. "He's thought a lot about arts and sciences, the liberal arts, and he's written a book on the shortcomings of business education." Yet, Useem adds, it's highly unusual. "I'm racking my brain trying to think of another business school professor that's become a dean of a [non-business] college or a dean of students in arts and sciences and I can't think of one. They may be out there, but it's not common."

Khurana is best known for his work studying the CEO job market and business school education. His book Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Search for Charismatic CEOs, was published in 2002, just as the Enron, WorldCom and Tyco corporate scandals were upending investors' faith in corporate leadership. It prompted many companies to rethink whether they should give homegrown insiders rather than outside superstars the corner office, just as the business world was recovering from what seemed at the time like an epidemic of corporate fraud.

He is also known for his 2007 book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, a critique of business school education in America today and a call for reform. In what has been called a "surprisingly disparaging" look at the MBA degree, Khurana came to some tough conclusions, calling the business school a "troubled institution" that — with its focus on shareholder value — has lost the "social compact between occupations deemed professions [such as medicine and law] and society at large."

Khurana was selected by an advisory committee that formed last July, consisting of professors across the Faculty of Arts & Sciences who also received input from undergraduates, other faculty members and administrators. 

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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