By James T. Hammond
Published Feb. 24, 2014
Peter Brews says if Nelson Mandela had been released two years sooner, he might not be a naturalized American citizen today, taking the helm as dean of the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
The 56-year-old native of South Africa came to the United States after a stint of teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He said he found that when he became a teacher in his native country, he knew he must “grow a conscience” and tell his students the truth about the white-minority rule.
“The tug of America was too strong,” he said.
As a student and teacher of the evolution of economic productivity, Brews said America has no equal in squeezing more and more work out of its enterprises.
“We in America have been leading the race to increase productivity for 150 years, and we can’t stop now,” he said.
Brews was the architect of a global Master of Business Administration program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. As a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC and former associate dean of its OneMBA program, he sought to set a new paradigm for global interaction, involving universities in five countries.
As an academic who earned his first doctorate in South Africa, Brews is keenly sensitive to the colonialist history of commerce and the ways in which dominant economies seek to plant their own ways of doing business in less developed nations.
As the rest of the world catches up, America and Europe must learn to deal with other economies more as equals than as subordinate partners. The older economies can even learn new ways of doing business if they keep an open mind, he said.
As a student of productivity, Brews said he also thinks about the human consequences of the rate at which machines are taking over tasks that once were human work.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more than one in six men ages 25 to 54, prime working years, don’t have jobs — a total of 10.4 million. Some are looking for jobs; many aren’t, the newspaper reported.
“The role of human work is changing,” he said. “It is clear to me that human work in the future will be that work machines cannot do. We must prepare our people to cope in that new world.”
Barring some calamity, Brews said that trend will continue.
“We are just moving to another level of innovation,” he said. “The only thing today that humans can do that machines cannot do is to be innovative and creative. Everyone’s creative level must be lifted. We all must up our game. That’s what I want to instill in our students.”
His views on immigration also are informed by his own experience. He feels strongly that continuing to be a nation of immigrants is a major strength of America because the people who leave their homelands to become residents here typically rank high on the scale of innovators.
“We must keep this new blood coming in all the time. It is one of our great competitive advantages,” Brews said.
But he also recognizes that it is the role of a major state university to educate the state’s native-born citizens, to raise their skill levels and improve their lives.
“We must reinstill in our young people the awareness that people in India and Asia get up early and work very hard,” he said. “You must know who is the competition and what they are offering.
“International business is in my roots,” he said. “As other economies catch up, it will be less important to go there and tell them what to do. Nothing says we’ll always be the leader. The world is changing. It will no longer be the Europeans and Americans calling the shots. There’s no way a nation of 350 million can dominate a world of 7 billion people.
“As a very proud naturalized American, I believe that America is still exceptional, but I understand that as time passes, others will become exceptional too,” Brews said.
Reach James T. Hammond at 803-726-7545.