COMMUTING FROM BELGIUM TO PHILADELPHIA TO EARN HIS DOCTORATE
With McKinsey’s mandatory retirement age of 60 looming not that far off, Beardsley found himself thinking about a second act. Taking one of his three sons, Philip, on the obligatory round of campus visits and immersing himself in the numerous rankings, Beardsley turned himself into “a walking encyclopedia on the topic of American college and university admissions.”
Those tours would ultimately persuade him, at first uncertainly, to pursue a leadership role in higher education. On something of a lark, he tossed in his CV for the job of president at Dartmouth College in 2012. But with an electrical engineering degree from Tufts University and his Sloan MBA, he lacked a doctorate considered a prerequisite for the job. Then, a year later, while maintaining his grueling role at McKinsey, Beardsley enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Doctorate for Higher Education Management and began a monthly commute to Philadelphia from Belgium for the next two years.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, he chose to do his dissertation on nontraditional leaders in higher education, a project that would lead to the publication of a book, Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia. On Christmas Eve of 2014, after surviving his earlier meeting with the faculty, Beardsley signed his contract to become dean of the Darden School with a start date of Aug. 1, 2015.
‘SCOTT HAS DONE A DEEP COMPREHENSIVE MCKINSEY STUDY OF DARDEN’
To say that Beardsley threw himself into the job would be an understatement. “Unlike most deans, Scott has done a deep comprehensive McKinsey study of Darden,” says Michael Woodfolk, president of the Darden School Foundation and the school’s chief fundraiser. “As part of that study, he has looked at what are the strong arteries that flow to the heart of the school. One of those arteries is the student experience, and he has been determined to make sure it remains the best there is.”
By the end of his first year, Beardsley had interviewed all 70 plus faculty members in one-on-one meetings that ranged from one to four hours each. He made 75 speeches, racked up 100,000 frequent flier miles traveling throughout the U.S., to Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa to meet with alumni and donors, and entertained half of the school’s students in his own home, one of the ten Pavilions on The Lawn of the university, the historic center of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, amidst students and other faculty. He and his wife, the French-born Claire DuFournet, live in Pavilion I on the north end of the site, opposite the Rotunda, the signature building of the University of Virginia.
They have completely embraced university life. Since becoming dean, Beardsley has created and taught three courses himself, including CEO Leadership in the 21st Century, and taught them in the first-floor dining room of his home or, on occasion, in the cellar, which in pre-Civil War day housed the slaves of the professors who lived upstairs. Claire hosts homemade chocolate crepe parties for Lawnies on snow days, and the two of them have been known to even join in an occasional snowball fight on The Lawn. From day one, the new dean of the business school made it a point to make the rounds to meet the students who are his neighbors.
A STRONG BELIEVER IN THE TRANSFORMATIVE VALUE OF HIGHER EDUCATIONAlex Gregorio was a history major in his senior year at UVA when he moved into the Pavilion next door. “I was talking with some friends on a warm August morning and all of a sudden this guy walks up in a suit, knocks on my door, and says, ‘Hi, I’m Scott. I just want to introduce myself. I am your neighbor. My wife and I would like to have you over for dinner sometime.’ I was very much star struck. He was a senior partner at McKinsey and the dean. It was the most chill, down-to-earth interaction you could have.” Gregorio since returned to UVA for both a law degree and an MBA and will graduate next year.
“In order for Scott to feel completely fulfilled,” notes Woodfolk of the Darden Foundation, “he has to immerse himself in the experience. That is why he lives on the Lawn. That is why he has embraced teaching. Scott wants to do his seminars and be in the classroom. It’s not enough for someone to tell him first hand what the students are thinking. He wants to be in it. He wants to be so immersed in it. He’s saying that ‘even though I didn’t grow up here, even though I didn’t graduate from UVA, I am going to take a bath in this whole UVA and business school experience.”
Education has come naturally to Beardsley, in part because he comes from a family of educators but also because of the role education has played in his own life. “Education,” he says, “allowed a kid born in a small town in Maine who grew up in Alaska to live an amazing life. I never would have had those opportunities were it not for education.”
‘MY OVERARCHING FEELING IS JUST ONE OF GRATITUDE’
The most challenging part of the transition was “getting to know everybody and to understand how things were done. The first year everything is new and you have to figure out the Darden way. A lot of people told me that the hardest part was to win over the faculty. They told me that would be impossible. At Darden, I feel blessed that the faculty is an amazing group of people and once I got to know them we were able to accomplish a lot of great things together. I feel very grateful to them. It was Cicero who said that gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others. My overarching feeling is just one of gratitude.”
Like any really good consultant, he is, at heart, a listener, a trait that has no doubt won over the school’s professors. But Beardsley is also very much a person of action. Sands Sr. says his $68 million gift to the school honored his commitment to higher education and his belief in lifelong learning, passions he shares with Beardsley. But ultimately, Sands says the gift underlines his belief in the school’s leadership. “In the final analysis,” says Sands, “you’ve got to get things done and you’ve got to do that through people. Scott gets things done.”
“Scott recognizes that decisions have to be made and good ideas have to be sourced,” says Greg Fairchild, a long-time faculty member at Darden who also serves as associate dean for Washington, D.C. area initiatives. “He allows the discussion but in the end, a decision will be made and not all will agree. Some think he lets it go longer than he should while others think that he pulls the trigger too quickly.”
‘ALL YOU TOUCH AND ALL YOU SEE IS ALL YOUR LIFE WILL EVER BE’
People who work with Beardsley invariably describe him as thoughtful, at times philosophical, earnest, compassionate, and competitive. “He can seem very serious,” says his wife Claire. “But you haven’t seen him play Elvis as he did during Christmas for a McKinsey party at our house years ago. He’s got more energy than anybody I know. He is always on, and he is very generous with his time and giving his own energy to people. Whatever he chooses to do, he chooses it for a reason and he puts a lot of passion into it.”
Fairchild notes that Beardsley, an avid tennis player, has a reputation as a guy who plays to win. “A couple of people who have played on a court with him will say, ‘Oh, that guy. He will go for the jugular. He is very hard to beat. He will bring you the game full on. He is going to be vicious so you have to be ready to play.'”
If you were to ask Beardsley for a core principle he follows, he might say it is best summed up by a lyric from Breathe on Pink Floyd’s epic work, The Dark Side of the Moon.
All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.
“it is one of my favorite quotes from music,” explains Beardsley. “Because I think life is a lot about finding ways to touch others’ lives in a positive way; that is how we live.”
Beardsley is an unabashed fan of the English rock band and on some afternoons can be seen playing air guitar with eyes closed, emulating David Gilmour’s solo, as the tune blasts from the pair of speaker towers in his living room.