The Farmer School of Business at Miami University.
STARTING A NEW job is always challenging, but that’s especially true for anyone taking up a leadership position during the tumultuous year of 2020. This summer, Jenny Darroch assumed the dean’s role at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio. She agreed to share with BizEd some of her thoughts and experiences during her first year as the school’s new dean, detailing the priorities she plans to set, the obstacles she expects to face, and the goals she hopes to reach. The first part of her story begins here, and we’ll share subsequent chapters in the months ahead. We’ll end with the close of the academic year, providing a record of one dean’s leadership journey during her first year on the job.
Just days after arriving in Oxford in late July, I walked into DuBois Bookstore to shop for Miami University clothing. There, I met a student from the Farmer School of Business, and I began talking to her from behind my mask. I asked about her major (accounting), inquired where she was from, and learned about her hopes and aspirations. I left the bookstore feeling excited about having finally arrived on campus and enthusiastic about the future of the Farmer School. I had been dean since July 1, but I hadn’t been to the school since my interview in February. The experience caused me to pause and think about just how unusual my first days on the job have been because of COVID-19.
As of this writing, I have been dean for a little over 60 days. In a typical year, I would have physically relocated to Oxford sometime before my official start date. By July 1, I would have signed on, taken a tour of campus, attended whatever orientation was appropriate, walked the corridors to meet people, and met with groups of faculty and staff to learn more about the school.
I had done none of this by my 30th day on the job. During my first weeks at the Farmer School, COVID-19 required me to work remotely from home, which was in Los Angeles. While I was immensely grateful to have this option, the first official day at work felt anticlimactic in that my commute was the same—I walked the same eight steps from my master bedroom to my home office. I did not move to Ohio until July 27, and the campus didn’t open until August 10.
But I had done what I could to get to know the Farmer School of Business before my official start date. I felt this was important because I wasn’t sure how the summer would shape up. In particular, I didn’t know what decisions we would need to make over the summer, given the shifting sands that are characteristic of the COVID-19 world we now live in.
I WANTED TO LEARN ABOUT THE PERCEIVED CHALLENGES I WOULD FACE AS INCOMING DEAN, AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT MIGHT LIE AHEAD.
To learn more about the school, during the spring and summer I attended regularly scheduled virtual meetings with my leadership team, and I also had several one-on-one meetings with team members. In addition, I started to make calls to members of my Board of Visitors and Business Advisory Council. I wanted to get to know the members, understand their relationships with the Farmer School, and ask them to outline the perceived challenges they thought I would face as an incoming dean, as well as the opportunities that might lie ahead. I held these meetings while I was wrapping up my deanship at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, where I mostly focused on ensuring a smooth transition to an interim dean, finalizing budgets, and making decisions about a return to campus.
In an ordinary year, my most pressing concerns in my new role at the Farmer School would have been learning about the school, thinking about the direction I wanted to take it in for the next five years, and looking forward to welcoming students back to campus for orientation and fall classes. Instead, my first weeks were spent focusing on the three main topics that dominated this atypical summer: setting the budget, safely reopening the campus, and addressing racial justice issues.
BALANCING THE BUDGET
Like most universities and colleges today, both Miami University and the Farmer School are dealing with fickle budgets. On June 19, the university’s board of trustees passed a revised 2020–2021 budget that required the university to shave US$15.3 million from operating expenses. Of that total, $2.8 million had to come from the budget for the Farmer School.
While the outgoing dean had worked with the budget manager to identify cuts, those cuts had to be implemented after I took up the post on July 1. This was challenging for me, as I did not yet understand the nuances of the business school, nor had my leadership team and I developed a clear sense of our strategic priorities for the next three to five years. While we have made some decisions, there will be ongoing work to meet our budgetary goals. The Miami University board of trustees meets toward the end of September to approve changes made to the budget and to examine the financial impact of our phased return to campus.
I’ve also been considering how to tackle remote fundraising. Face-to-face meetings are an important engagement and cultivation tool, but difficult to achieve given COVID-19 restraints. I will need to be creative with how I engage donors during these times when their generosity is absolutely essential. This work will also be ongoing.
REOPENING THE CAMPUS
Our response to the second challenge, safely returning to campus, was continuously evolving as new data came to light. The first decision we made was to start the year one week earlier so students could head home for Thanksgiving, take exams remotely, and not return to campus until January. Then the governor of Ohio directed schools to proceed so that classrooms were only filled at 50 percent and students maintained a six-foot social distance in class.
In addition, we decided to follow a phased return to campus. We will hold the first five weeks online; once students return, we will deliver classes through a mix of face-to-face, remote, and hybrid formats. Our goal was to deliver one-third of the classes through each modality, and we have come close to achieving this ratio.
The Farmer School spent a great deal of time working with professors to move courses to and from different modalities, and the university spent countless hours developing new policies to resolve issues that arose as changes were made. For instance, we wanted to have policies in place in case students, staff, or faculty tested positive for COVID. We also wanted to be able to accommodate faculty who did not want to work remotely, perhaps because they had children at home who were also using the computer for school.
One of the biggest surprises to me has been the number of letters I have received from parents who are concerned that online courses are inferior. Our head of advising has made calls to these parents to allay their concerns.
FACULTY SAY THEIR COURSES ARE BETTER THAN IN THE PAST BECAUSE THEY HAVE BEEN FORCED TO CHALLENGE EVERYTHING THEY DO.
As for myself, I have no fears about the quality of our online courses. I know that our faculty are professionals who care deeply about our students and their success. Over the summer, the majority of our professors voluntarily attended courses hosted by our Center for Teaching Excellence to learn how to successfully hold online classes. As a result, they have made substantive improvements to their courses. In fact, since I have come to campus, I have often heard faculty say that the courses they are delivering now are better than any courses they have delivered in the past because they have been forced to challenge everything they do in order to create a positive learning environment.
Faculty also have commented that the technology enables them to do things they couldn’t do before. For instance, they can have speakers participate via video conference from anywhere in the world; they can use the breakout rooms in the video conferencing platform to encourage better student participation.
Students themselves have commented that they feel they are better prepared as they go into each class. Many say they have benefited from technology-enabled innovations, such as participating in virtual internships.
I believe that, by requiring students to move between face-to-face and remote modalities, we are helping prepare them for their future careers, where such transitions will be commonplace. Through remote classes, they are learning to log into video conferences, participate in virtual discussions, give presentations online, make contributions as digital interns, and interview and secure jobs even without meeting their potential employers face-to-face. These skills will be invaluable in the post-COVID future, as it is likely that businesses will decide that mixed modalities are efficient and effective. We expect businesses to integrate them even once the crisis is past.
But students also need to experience residential life, co-curricular opportunities, and other face-to-face interactions to learn how to build culture, community, and important soft skills. Offering a mix of remote and in-person instruction will help us live up to the Farmer School of Business tagline “Beyond Ready,” which is our promise to make sure students are ready to make an impact on day one of their careers. I am looking forward to welcoming students back to campus when it is safe to do so.
FOCUSING ON INCLUSIVITY
The third priority I am dealing with in my first months as dean is further diversifying the student body, the faculty, and the staff to create a stronger culture of belonging. We want to train future leaders who not only are equipped to lead diverse teams, but also understand why diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are part of good business practice.
We have made much progress. For example, all of our incoming students take the first-year integrated core, which includes a new initiative called Beyond Ready Cultural Intelligence (CQ). In this course, which is part of the degree requirement, students develop comprehensive four-year plans to improve their CQ. Faculty also address DEI issues in other courses. For example, in economics classes, students examine how the market and public policy perpetuate inequality in the U.S. In finance courses, students take modules from the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute to learn why diversity in decision making yields better results.
INCOMING STUDENTS TAKE A NEW CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE COURSE THAT IS PART OF THE DEGREE REQUIREMENT.
However, like any university, we have had some setbacks. In late August, during a Zoom call showcasing our business fraternities, someone hijacked the call and took over hosting rights. The hijackers used racial slurs and wrote all over the presentation. While such blatant racism is reprehensible, this episode galvanized our students to work together as part of a #WeAreTheChange movement.
In addition, as a school, we are working toward our long-term goal of being a national leader in enhancing diversity and creating an inclusive community where all members are respected and valued. We know that it will be critical to include students in our work to effect change.
How will we know that we have been successful in our efforts? Members of my DEI committee and I have noted that the best evidence of our success will be when our committee is no longer needed.
WHAT COMES NEXT
I have taken up the deanship at the Farmer School at a time when higher education is at a crossroads. I have to believe that good will come from the many changes that we have already made and that we will make in the near term.
COVID-19 has taught us to reimagine high-quality business education. We can no longer believe it is enough for the professor to lecture at the front of the room. Schools must offer multiple learning opportunities, allow students to make connections between concepts and disciplines, and challenge them in so many other ways. We must encourage students to engage in their own learning journeys, ensuring they are well-trained, multidimensional, and beyond ready for whatever happens.
As the new leader of a business school, I too must be beyond ready for the challenges that will face me in the next 60 days. I expect to continue to focus on the three priorities I have outlined here—budgeting, campus safety, and inclusivity—but I know new and unexpected challenges could crop up at any point. In a few months, I will report back on the new issues that I’m facing, and how I’m planning to deal with what comes next.
Jenny Darroch is the Dean and Mitchell P. Rales Chair in Business Leadership at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio.