Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

Back to the Future

Owen Dean Jim Bradford, '73, returned to Vanderbilt to play a part in future of business education

by Beth Matter Owen Dean Jim Bradford

In addition to awakening the entire world to the threat posed by terrorism, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, served as a wake-up call to many people. Jim Bradford counts himself among them.

Bradford's self-assessment fueled his resolve to pursue an ambition he'd been quietly contemplating for a long time: Retire from his successful legal and business career to teach full time. He had served on the adjunct faculty at Virginia's well-regarded Emory and Henry College and at East Tennessee State University during his legal and corporate careers and realized how much he enjoyed teaching. He also hoped to return to Vanderbilt, where he had graduated from law school and where his wife, Susan, and several family members had earned undergraduate degrees.

Bradford cold-called Bill Christie, then dean of Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management. Christie not only hired him to teach strategy, but within less than a year, tapped him to serve as associate dean of corporate relations. When Christie stepped down in 2004, Bradford became Owen's acting dean, and he garnered the permanent appointment in February 2005.

Bradford traces his philosophy of life and work—as well as his vision for Owen—to influential Vanderbilt law professor Paul Hartman, also known as "The Dutchman," whose contracts class was both the terror and delight of first-year law students during the 1960s and 1970s. "Paul would stand you on your feet for hours at a time and filet you," Bradford recalls. "Whatever idea you had, he took it apart and fed it back to you. He taught me some great life lessons—one of which was never go anywhere or do anything in life unprepared—that have served me well."

Professor Hartman also left Bradford with a lasting respect for the Socratic method, which he employs with Owen students in and out of the classroom. An enthusiastic cyclist, Bradford often invites a group of students to join him for a Saturday morning bike ride, and he ruefully acknowledges that student cyclists have become adept at turning the Socratic method back on him at strategic moments during these rides. "They wait until I'm just starting to pedal up a big hill and gasping for breath to lob a complex question," he says. "It's playful revenge, but the important thing is that they ask."

Bradford, who is Owen's fifth dean in 36 years, brings the perspective of an attorney who has served as a corporate general counsel as well as a seasoned CEO to the task of innovating business. His ultimate goal—to train students to understand their biases and defend their ideas—is mirrored in legal education. "In both law and business, what a great education does is give you frameworks, lenses, curiosity, skepticism and a methodology to apply to situations and ideas," he says.

During his first year as dean, Bradford expanded Owen's programs to include an M.S. in Finance and a Health Care MBA, and launched a four-week summer "Accelerator" institute designed to introduce basic business principles to undergraduates. He's also taken on the task of defining the qualities essential to a topnotch business education as a personal mission. "Excelling at one or two things won't make you an effective executive," he says. "The best preparation is broad and deep, integrating knowledge and experience from different disciplines in an interactive, open environment."

Bradford points to the Law & Business Program, an interdisciplinary program that allows law students who plan to pursue a corporate practice to gain an understanding of finance and accounting principles and business students to gain a basic understanding of corporate laws and the regulatory environment, as an example of a broader perspective. "One of my goals is to leverage the great strengths that abound at Vanderbilt with law, medicine and the other schools," Bradford says. Under his watch, Owen has recruited accounting professor Karl Hackenbrack to direct its Law & Business program, working closely with the law school's Law & Business program director, Randall Thomas.

Future business leaders, Bradford believes, must also develop and hone essential "soft skills," including communications and leadership. And Bradford proudly notes that Owen incorporated ethics into its curriculum long before Sarbanes-Oxley. "The moral decisions we face in life and business sometimes come masked as an opportunity or a trying business situation," Bradford says.

But he finds his greatest pleasure in spending time with students. "When I came here, I fell in love with the students instantly," he recalls. "These incredible, energetic, experienced human beings want to change the world. That's a delightful environment to be in, and I wanted to participate in that."