The Farmer School of Business at Miami University.
THIS SUMMER, WHEN Jenny Darroch took on the dean’s role at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio, she offered to share with BizEd ongoing insights about her first year on the job. In a September article, she described the challenges of choosing priorities and setting a budget. Here, she works to identify the school’s strengths and focuses on long-term strategic planning. In two subsequent installments, she’ll discuss what she learns as the academic year progresses.
By the time you read this, many of us will be close to the finish line on this very strange fall semester. As the new dean of the Farmer School of Business, I’m grateful to have one semester nearly under my belt and to move beyond the immediate challenges of the early days. I’m looking forward to shifting the focus from COVID and budgeting to more long-term, strategic concerns.
The most pressing strategic question for me—and, I imagine, every business school leader—is how to differentiate our school in a crowded and ever-more-competitive market. Many institutions tend to focus their efforts, both naturally and intentionally, on one or two of the three pillars that define a comprehensive business education: research, teaching, and practice.
As a new dean, how do I determine which differentiator to claim? Do I choose an area in which we already excel, or do I focus on the area where it seems we can move the needle most quickly?
As I have engaged with key stakeholders—students, faculty, alumni, and employers—it has become clear to me that the most strategic approach for the Farmer School is to create an ecosystem in which all three core areas are harnessed to ensure the health of our programs and to shape outcomes for our students.
THE TEACHING PILLAR
Where we are now: Our faculty are here because they enjoy teaching and are particularly good at it. When students are asked what they value most about their time at the Farmer School, they regularly cite the quality of the teaching, the mentorship of faculty, and the lasting connections with faculty even after graduation.
What I see at Farmer is a culture where students expect to be seen as equal partners in the learning process. They also expect learning will be entertaining, immersive, purpose-driven, and experiential, and they want to curate their own success. The outcome is a highly engaged learning environment.
What’s next: We must continue to focus on our teaching strengths during the pandemic and find new ways to create connections with students while teaching virtually. One faculty member notes that, while his office was regularly full of students pre-COVID, student engagement dropped when classes went remote. As a result, he has instituted what he calls “additional teaching sessions,” which are a hybrid of open office hours and additional instruction, and these have generated increased student interest.
STUDENTS EXPECT LEARNING WILL BE ENTERTAINING, IMMERSIVE, PURPOSE-DRIVEN, AND EXPERIENTIAL.
Other faculty are helping students understand the benefits of an asynchronous learning format, one of which is that students can work at their own pace. This mimics how students will operate in the real world. In fact, as a school, we have had to communicate to our students and their families how faculty can engage students during an asynchronous learning process, as there is a perception that “asynchronous” is a synonym for “disconnected.”
An area we want to expand is the use of practitioners in the classroom. We believe it is important to have practitioners infuse their experience into the coursework and help shape the lessons that students take away from each class. The participation of practitioners also ensures that our curriculum remains aligned with the needs of business. COVID-19 has normalized the use of video conferencing technology, which will make it easier to integrate practice more deeply into our teaching.
THE RESEARCH PILLAR
Where we are now: At the Farmer School, our faculty’s robust research efforts sometimes include the participation of students. This fosters in our students the ability to think critically, be comfortable with ambiguity, and pursue knowledge. The work produced through these partnerships also drives the evolution of our curriculum and informs the teaching of our faculty members.
What’s next: As we think about an ecosystem model, we also want to make sure our research offers competitive advantages to companies that rely on our insights. To that end, we want to partner more with industry on research—we want to seek funding from corporate partners and use their data to develop solutions to problems they are grappling with right now.
We’ve seen this already in the work of Megan Gerhardt, professor and Robert D. Johnson Director of the Isaac & Oxley Center for Business Leadership and director of leadership development. Her research focuses on generational differences and their impact in the workplace—something she calls Gentelligence. Organizations often ask her to help them build high-performance teams by leveraging the generational perspectives their employees bring to the boardroom. Within the school, she works with undergraduates to show them how to build high-performance teams. She also is helping other faculty members in these areas as they teach their own team-based experiential classes.
THE PRACTICE PILLAR
Where we are now: Throughout their Farmer School experience, students deal with real-world business challenges, whether they’re joining student organizations, participating in pitch and case competitions, listening to guest speakers, or working on applied projects. Our goal is to create a future workforce that is adaptable, knowledgeable, and ready to hit the ground running.
What’s next: We have always had strong connections with practice, but we are about to roll out a series of initiatives to deepen and systematize the way we think about the practice pillar. In particular, we need to quantify and capture the impact these opportunities have on student outcomes and career readiness.
RESEARCH, TEACHING, AND PRACTICE ARE THREE LEGS ON A STOOL, WITH EACH CONTRIBUTING EQUALLY TO STUDENTS’ EDUCATION.
We have also found some creative ways to deliver valuable student experiences during the pandemic; many of these initiatives will remain once COVID-19 is behind us. For instance, as mentioned above, we are using virtual events to expose students to a wider range of speakers who represent diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. We believe this may lead students to think more broadly about the industries and employers they’re interested in working for after graduation.
We are also offering virtual internships. Over the summer, more than two dozen students worked virtually in nine different countries and at least eight different industries. Students worked ten hours a week on projects. While some of their time was spent interacting with supervisors or attending team meetings, most of those hours were unstructured time.
During the long winter break, we will launch an Alumni Coffee Chat series. The intent is to put successful alumni in contact with motivated students to help them develop their professional skills and broaden their networks.
THE SYNERGY OF THREE
It is very likely that it would be easier to put all our chips on one or two of these areas, to funnel all our resources and best thinking there, and hope that we made the right bet. But in our work lives, we rarely have the luxury of focusing on just one thing.
I have been thinking about research, teaching, and practice as three legs on a stool, with each contributing equally to students’ education and career preparation. It struck me that if business schools are not excelling equally in all three areas, the stool becomes lopsided and ineffective.
As academics, it is part of our job to protect the university as a brand. We must not only create new knowledge, but also make sure that those outside the academy value the university’s role in generating new knowledge. We also must make sure that our teaching is informed by research so that our students develop critical thinking skills and the ability to engage in evidence-based decision making. Our students require training so that they are job-ready and able to create immediate value for their employers from day one. In the long run, this holistic approach to excellence will serve our institution and our students best.
Jenny Darroch is the Dean and Mitchell P. Rales Chair in Business Leadership at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio.