“RETURN ON INVESTMENT” is a phrase that’s become increasingly common in conversations about higher education, as all stakeholders look for proof that a university education is worth its high cost. Therefore, it’s no surprise that, in recent years, more universities are recruiting their top leaders from a group of people with a deep understanding of ROI and the ability to make a business model work. That is, more presidents and provosts are being chosen from the ranks of business school deans.
Mirta Martin is one example. After serving as dean of the Reginald F. Lewis College of Business at Virginia State University in Petersburg for five years, she became president of Fort Hays State University in Kansas in 2014—and she brought with her everything she knows about ROI, fundraising, synergies between departments, and economies of scale. “When you’re working with limited resources, it’s important to invest in the resources that yield the highest return on investment,” she says. She points out that, as state support shrinks, universities will have to start looking for more external sources of income and more internal efficiencies. “Otherwise,” she adds, “institutions are not going to survive.”
Martin predicts that within ten or 15 years, more public universities will take on attributes of private ones, deriving income from fundraising and partnerships—and in that situation, she believes business school deans will have an edge as university administrators. “Schools will have to look at creating competitive advantages and developing synergies. The educational model is shifting, just as the business model has shifted, and we have to adapt.”
Her comments are echoed by Patrick Maggitti, who was dean at Villanova Business School in Pennsylvania for three years before being named the first provost of Villanova University last August. As the job of the provost becomes more outward-facing, Maggitti says, former b-school deans are among the best candidates to move into the role because they already know how to raise funds, connect to industry, and develop relationships with graduate schools.
“Deans might spend 50 percent of their time dealing with external constituents,” says Maggitti. “As a provost, I might spend 25 percent of my time on outward-facing activities, but they’re at a higher level—I’m dealing with bigger gifts and making higher-level connections with corporate leaders. So in that respect, being a dean was a terrific practice ground for these activities.”
With that in mind, here are eight tips for b-school deans interested in assuming university leadership roles—from five deans who’ve made the leap.
"A DEAN'S UNDERSTANDING OF THE BIG FINANCIAL PICTURE IS AN ASSET GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE OF MANAGING LIMITED RESOURCES."
BENJAMIN OLA AKANDE, WESTMINSTER COLLEGE
1. USE ALL THE BUSINESS KNOWLEDGE YOU’VE ACCUMULATED.
Before becoming president of Chicago’s Roosevelt University in July 2015, Ali Malekzadeh held several posts as dean, including stints at the College of Business Administration at Kansas State in Manhattan; the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Herberger College of Business at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. “As a former dean, I bring a good dose of reality to the business side of the university, in every area from financial aid to purchasing. I keep an eye on the budget, and I keep an eye on the pressures on the budget.”
Those are key skills, agrees Benjamin Ola Akande, who served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, for 15 years before becoming president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 2015. He says, “A dean’s understanding of the big financial picture is an asset given the importance of managing limited resources and making judgment calls on who gets what, how much, or none at all.”
Maggitti notes that former deans are good at overseeing operational costs and making sure “we’re providing an experience unlike any other, one that offers a value equivalent to the tuition. But we also need to look for ways to control or offset those costs, whether through the use of technology or by being smart about the programs we offer or by applying fiscal discipline to our business model.”
Former deans have an additional advantage over some other administrators, says Maggitti: They’re used to moving quickly to keep up with the rapid changes in business. “It’s an exaggeration, but business schools operate on Wall Street time, while other departments on campus might be operating in time counted by centuries or millennia,” he says. For instance, he points out that business schools were among the first to offer online programs, and they can lead the way for other schools just starting to experiment with online formats.
2. BUT REALIZE THE NEW JOB WILL COME WITH ITS OWN CHALLENGES AND A NEW LEVEL OF INTENSITY.
The provost's job is one of astonishing breadth, Maggitti says. "My biggest challenge," he adds, "has been getting my hands around a wide and varied set of perspectives.
Len Jessup agrees. Before becoming president of the University of Nevada Las Vegas in January 2015, Jessup had had a fair amount of experience as a university leader. He had been a dean twice—at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at the College of Business at Washington State University in Pullman. But he also had held additional leadership roles, such as vice president of university development at WSU and founding board member of the University of Arizona’s Health Network. Even so, nothing prepared him for how demanding the president’s job would be.
Says Jessup, “At Eller, I was traveling nearly every week and putting in long hours every day, but things have definitely kicked up a notch. For instance, I’ve really had to step up my activities with our regents compared to what I experienced with board members when I was in other roles. Overall, I’m even busier now and the role is more intense. The good news is that I love it.”
3. UNDERSTAND THAT THE JOB CARRIES WITH IT AN EXTRAORDINARY LEVEL OF POWER.
While deans might exercise great influence on the direction and priorities of their individual colleges, top administrators can have a similar influence on the whole university. Akande says that the most profound realization he has made during his first year as president is that “how I lead can impact every single aspect of the college experience.”
That’s the reason Martin wanted to become president, she says. “I wanted to effect change on a wide scale.”
But these former deans know they have to use that power carefully. “As president, what you say to others has tremendous influence, so I’ve tried to be very careful about what I say and write because I know people will listen closely,” says Jessup. “For example, even when I just casually say that we ought to look into something, people quickly act on my suggestion. I have to be incredibly disciplined in what I suggest to others.”
Even so, these administrators have capitalized on their positions to achieve real—and often rapid—change. For instance, Martin led an effort to revamp Fort Hays’ scholarship program, taking it from a US$1.1 million account that funded only first-year students to a $2.5 million account that will fund students throughout their time at the university as long as they maintain their GPAs at 3.0 or above. “Students no longer have to work that extra ten hours a week to afford tuition, so they can divert those ten hours to studying,” she says. “That means they can increase their GPAs, which means they can get into the grad schools or careers they want.”
Similarly, Malekzadeh has used the president’s influence to change longstanding employee and student policies. For instance, he hadn’t been at Roosevelt very long before he learned that staff members had lobbied for years to close the university between Christmas and New Year’s, and the decision to do so lay in his hands. “Five minutes later, my office sent the email saying we’d be closed that week. You could hear the cheering in the hallways. And I thought, ‘Well, that was easy.’”
He also has used the weight of his office to change policies such as the length of time an employee must be on board before being eligible for maternity leave and to revise “draconian” rules designed to prevent student cheating. But he knows it’s easy to abuse such power. “Without the consultation of the students, faculty, and administration, you could seriously get into trouble,” he says. “That’s why integrity is the No. 1 requirement of the job.”
4. AND THAT’S WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO SEEK INPUT FROM ANYONE CONNECTED TO THE UNIVERSITY.
Malekzadeh believes in getting to know everyone on campus, from top administrators to cooks and cleaning personnel. “I challenge all of my faculty to get to know the janitors who clean the cafeterias. I say, ‘You will be stunned at how much they know about the history of the institution and the direction of the university. They will have read every word you ever said in the student newspaper or on the school blog.’ They’re doing their own jobs, but they’re very well-informed, and they can offer amazing suggestions.” From the beginning, one of Martin’s goals was to let everyone on campus know that they had a voice and she was ready to listen. Within four months of her arrival, she set up two task forces to re-engineer the university, one focused on academics and one on operations. None of the task force members were administrators, deans, or department chairs; instead, they were all rank-and-file individuals who were close to the university’s day-to-day operations. The task forces produced a 207-page report of recommendations—and Martin says the university implemented 95 percent of them.
For instance, the large College of Arts and Sciences was split into the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Science, Technology, and Math—creating a different set of synergies and helping the university win a $1.1 million grant for a collaboration between the departments of agriculture and biology. Conversely, the university consolidated the operations of the marketing professionals, who were distributed among various departments and creating completely different promotional materials. Now all the marketing staff are gathered into one unit and have developed a unified brand and an efficient marketing plan.
"IF I DON'T ANSWER AN EMAIL, IT'S BECAUSE I DIDN'T GET IT OR I'M DEAD."
MIRTA MARTIN, FORT HAYS STATE UNIVERSITY
5. BE TRANSPARENT.
“When you stand in the faculty senate, tell the truth and nothing but the truth,” says Malekzadeh. “These are incredibly smart people, and if you’re hedging, they’ll know.”
Martin concurs. In addition to an official university newsletter sent out every week, she provides a monthly update to keep everyone apprised of what’s happening. “Rumors begin when people don’t have information,” she says. “If people have questions, they email me. I tell them, if I don’t answer an email, it’s because I didn’t get it or I’m dead.”
6. AND ACCESSIBLE.
Martin goes out of her way to make herself personally available. She lives on campus in what used to be called the President’s House—when it was renovated, she changed its name to the University House and began inviting people in for receptions and holiday celebrations. Her rule is that, when the porch light is on, she’s home, and anyone can drop by. As the house is across the street from the only Starbucks on campus, she frequently receives late-night visits from students who stroll in to visit with her while they drink their coffee.
Martin also strives to be extremely visible, attending every sports and artistic event she can. “I think of the role of the president as being similar to the role of a parent. If you have several children and each one has different interests, you support them all. Here it’s the same thing. Because I attend all the games and concerts, the students know me and I know them.”
7. AT THE SAME TIME, REALIZE YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING.
There are so many demands on an administrator’s time that a top leader simply can’t be everywhere at once. Jessup says, “When I was dean, I remember being very disappointed once because my president couldn’t make it to an important event we were having with donors one evening. Well, fast forward to now, when I’ve just finished up a long day that began at 6 a.m. and ended after an event about 10 p.m. and included multiple important events that I had to choose among. Now I realize that my president probably had something else pressing to do that night.”
8. AND THROUGH IT ALL, REMAIN UPBEAT.
“The faculty, students, and staff all rely on that positive outlook you bring to the job,” says Malekzadeh. While university presidents often must make difficult choices regarding budgets and personnel, they still need to retain a hopeful outlook, he says. “Everyone inside the university knows what the issues are,” he says. “But they want some optimism about the future, the attitude that we can get out of this mess, whatever it is. They want to believe there is a bright future ahead. The president can push everybody in that direction.”
POISED FOR THE FUTURE
As higher education goes through a period of examination and restructuring—as costs rise and ROI becomes paramount—top administrators must stay focused on the university as an enterprise, says Maggitti. “They have a responsibility to the students to utilize their money in the most efficient and effective way possible. Universities aren’t typical businesses because we aren’t focused on profitability, but we do need to operate in a way that responds to the needs of our constituents.”
Martin adds that as academics realize universities will have to operate like businesses to remain viable in the 21st century, they’ll see b-school deans as great candidates to lead their schools. “We know how to take something good and make it great. We know how to inspire,” she says. “We know how to create a vision and a mission, and how to energize people as they work toward a common goal.”