A Talk With Michigan's New Dean

Robert Dolan on his goals and challenges as recently appointed dean of the University of Michigan Business School

This summer, a number of top-rated business schools have changed deans. The leadership shift brings new faces and styles to schools that have held some of BusinessWeek's top-ranked positions. As they refocus, B-schools also will be exploring new ventures abroad.

In upcoming weeks, BusinessWeek Online will be running a brief series of interviews to introduce you to some of the new deans. Our second guest is Robert Dolan, the new dean of the University of Michigan Business School, ranked No. 6 on BusinessWeek's biennial MBA rankings in September, 2000. A professor with more than 20 years of teaching experience at Chicago, Harvard, and IESE's B-schools, Dolan took the job this summer, over a year after Joe White announced he'd leave the position after a 10-year run at being dean.

Dolan spoke with Mica Schneider , BusinessWeek Online's reporter covering management education. Here's an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: B-school deans wear a number of different hats these days. There are students, trustees, and clients to answer to; faculty to appease and support; alumni (and their wallets) to woo; and other contingencies to consider. Why are you the right person for the job?


There are a lot of reasons I think I'm right for this job. Let me start with the faculty. [My] strength when dealing with the faculty is the breadth of very different kinds of research I've done in my own career. After getting my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, I started out at the University of Chicago on the very theoretical end of things, doing mathematical models and all that jazzy stuff. Then I got more interested in marketing, which is why I went to Harvard [Business School]. I became more applied over time and more interested in managerial issues. So for the faculty, even though I haven't done any work on attitude theory [for instance], I've run experiments in my life, I've tried to write for a managerial audience. So I hope that the breadth of research I've done will help me communicate with the faculty.

On the student side, at Harvard I had a lot of experience with the MBAs when I was head of one of the required courses and then ran a piece of the first year of the MBA program for a year. I really like the MBA students, and generally, I don't have a lot of trouble communicating with them. Keep the lines of communications open, have them understand what's going on from the supply side, and things should work pretty well.

Q: You can't avoid one serious job as dean: making money. Your predecessor, Joe White, brought the school's endowment from $40 million to $150 million. What's your goal?


That's the aspect of the job that will be new for me. As far as the internal working of the school, with the faculty and students, I've had a lot of experience. But at HBS, [attracting donors to the school] was centralized in the dean's office, and the faculty didn't really participate. I've been meeting with the development people [here] since the search process, to pose the question to myself, 'Would I be very good in that role?' I came away from that experience thinking that, given the enormous goodwill among the alumni and other people who have supported the school, if I have a great program and set of initiatives to bring to these people, and given my marketing background, this shouldn't be hard.

Q: You've got a strong marketing background, and a good part of a dean's job is just that -- marketing. So what's the new Michigan message you'll send to alumni (a.k.a. investors), students, business execs, and others?


Given that I've been on the job for nine days, I'm still doing my homework on that. There are a few things, broadly, that I have in mind that will be key parts of the Michigan message. Two of them are to preserve the historical strengths of the school. First, the spirit of innovation here, trying new things and pushing the envelope. Secondly, recruiters perceive our students, and one of the things that the students say about the Michigan experience, they feel that they can hit the ground running immediately.

In terms of new dimensions I'll focus on, it's important that as a leading business school, we position ourselves to our MBA students not that we're doing a 17-month transaction, where they come [to campus], have an education experience, and get a job. We hope they stay connected by coming back once in a while and supporting us through some giving. But we realize with the way things are changing in the business world that we really, for their sake and for ours, should have a relationship rather than a transaction. I'd like to see Michigan take advantage of information technology to have a substantive learning relationship with our people -- even after they've graduated.

Q: What's the revised message for recruiters?


I want recruiters to know that if they hire a Michigan student, not only [will the student be] on the front tier of business knowledge today, but they're going to be for the future as well. That's because Michigan is providing them the means to do that and is building on the education they had in their 17-month experience together. We'll have to tie in executive education more with the degree program.

The idea of a Michigan student having a global perspective will be a second message. [With] the Davidson Institute, and with the MBA programs we have in Brazil and Korea, we have a unique position with respect to transitional economies. I've also met with Michigan students in Madrid, and we can be doing more in Europe.

A third part of the Michigan message will be that our students, when defining problems, will frame them in the right ethical and socially responsible ways. I was the state of Minnesota's expert witness in the tobacco trial against Philip Morris. That was somewhat of an emotional experience for me. I had been teaching marketing by that time for over 20 years, and when I got involved in that case, I saw my craft of marketing practiced as well as I had ever seen it practiced, but to such a dreadful end. That caused me to ask myself, "How much of your time are you helping students think about when and where they apply [marketing] tools?"

Q: How can a dean of Michigan change the ethical mindset of any of its students?


There are a number of people [at Michigan] who have serious initiatives around how we educate students to make the world a better place within the context of business. I do see great potential for us in that domain. It's a matter of finding the right ways of getting it into our educational programs, and making sure the ethical and social responsibility issues are in there. And that we take seriously the personal development of people. The average age of our MBA student is 27 years old, so even though they're quite accomplished, there is a developmental aspect to an MBA education that we have to take very seriously.

Q: How well are schools handling ethics in general?


It's a high-variance proposition. There are some schools which, when you frame the business problem, it's framed around profit maximization or shareholder value maximization, and the ethical and social responsibility issues get crowded out. One of the things I really loved about Harvard Business School was the work starting under John H. McArthur's reign as dean and continuing through Kim Clark's. That was a continual emphasis on bringing ethical dimensions of decisions into the classroom, rather than saying it's out of bounds and not part of the teaching plan.

From the very first day that people come into [Michigan's] MBA program, a big part of orientation is a social-responsibility experience, where they work in the community. Some schools are doing a terrific job. It's really hard, because it's not so easy to say, "Teach ethics and social responsibility" -- it's easier to ask [a faculty member] to teach about new pricing methodologies or new theories in organizational behavior. We know those kinds of things, and a lot of MBA students coming to a school expect [such courses]. I had an experience with some Harvard MBAs who said, "I didn't really come here for that, for this social responsibility kind of thing."

Q: One point that comes up in our conversations with B-school alumni is that they didn't get enough lessons on leadership. Tell us about your vision of leadership and how it will differ from your predecessor's.


One of the dumbest things I could do would be to say, "The way we did it at Harvard is the way we ought to do it here." What I've done for the past nine days is to go to the offices of the members of my executive committee and the area chairs, and see what are their points of view and what they want to do. I've pledged to the 126 tenure-track faculty that I'm going to meet each one of them separately to get their perspectives on the school. I'm not coming into this trying to make Michigan like Harvard. Michigan has a certain set of strengths, and we have a unique set of opportunities. My style will be to do my homework and find those opportunities, and then I've got to find the right processes by which to engage faculty in discussion of those key difficulties.

Q: You've seen B-schools from a number of different angles: as a Ph.D. student, a junior-level faculty member, a top marketing professor at Harvard, and a visiting professor at IESE. What's wrong with management education?


I honestly think that a couple of the challenges of management education as an industry, in our competition with one another, we're positioning ourselves too much on convenience. I saw an ad for an MBA program the other day as the most convenient way to get an MBA. I said, "Oh, boy, finally the apocalypse is upon us." As an MBA industry, part of the problem is that we have too many very different things going on under the same name of the MBA degree. For us, to aspire to be the top players in this business, we really do have to take on some of the difficult issues -- integrating social-responsibility issues into our curriculum and focusing on personal development. And communicating with people that this is a dimension on which we're different. All MBA degrees are not by any means the same. The ones that you get because they're convenient aren't anything like what Wharton and University of Michigan are doing, as examples.

Q: You've talked a lot about the MBA degree. What are the areas of improvement for executive education?


The big area for us in executive education is how we're able to take advantage of the new information technology -- both as an adjunct to the programs that have a residential component to them, and the ones that wouldn't have a residential component. In the executive MBA program, which we'll launch next month, 30% of that content will be delivered electronically. That, to me, is the really big opportunity in the field of executive education.

Q: B-schools are having trouble attracting more women and underrepresented minorities to their campuses. What can you do as a dean to remedy this? Should schools lower the bar to admit more of the applicants who are on the line?


My solution is not to lower the bar -- that's a disservice to the groups that we were talking about. My solution is to widen the search as much as we can and to make people aware of the opportunities here. But it's to really develop programs that people can take [and] to develop a readiness for the MBA program that we have.

Q: What changes can the Michigan Business School community expect this coming year?


One of the reasons I came to Michigan is that I really felt an overlap between the kind of values I have and those of the institution. I'm not sure that the students will be hearing something that is a 180-degree turn from me, but I will be stressing to them how much I envy the experience they have ahead of them. It's a wonderful time in their lives to be fortunate enough to have a time-out from their everyday work experience and to be coming to a great university. [They'll see more attention given to] developing their ethical and social-responsibility sensitivities as well as their professional expertise.

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