Seth Gardner Goes from Cerberus to the Academy

Every private equity pro has been touched (perhaps punched?) by the financial crisis, but few spent more time at the intersection of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue than did Seth Gardner, then a managing director and associate general counsel with onetime Chrysler owner Cerberus Capital Management.

As the slog thickened, Gardner realized two things: (1) The next generation of finance professional is in the academy; and (2) The next generation of finance professional is doomed to repeat past mistakes, unless the academy changes its lesson plan.

This was the message Gardner brought last summer to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where he had received an MBA in 1994. The result is something Fuqua calls the Center for Financial Excellence, with Gardner serving as executive director.

“MBA debt finance education has become stale, and mediocrity is no longer acceptable, even if it’s tolerated, going forward,” Gardner says. “This isn’t just Washington and Wall Street. Education is the third leg of the stool. If educational institutions don’t realize that – whether its training people who will run banks or PE firms or hedge funds – then we’re falling down on the job.”

Gardner describes his program as “nascent,” and says that it is unlikely to become a core part of the Fuqua MBA program. Instead, it would be a supplemental program and certification for finance-oriented MBAs. He hopes to begin slowly rolling the effort out as soon as possible.

He currently is building a small staff, and regularly soliciting feedback from financial and regulatory professionals.

“What I hope we can provide is two things: First, more rigor in real-world applications of financial theory, so that students can act on it quicker. Second, I want them to understand the causes of the financial crisis, so that they can get their arms around the responsibility that comes with investment management… I want them to understand that what they will do is consequential.”