AACSB Member Voices: Rowena Ortiz-Walters
Ortiz-Walters discusses the intricacies of a dean's role—and where she found support—and the need for a more diverse pipeline of future leaders.
In this series, we reach out to individuals involved in AACSB's Business Education Alliance to learn about their personal perspectives and experiences in business education. We ask educators and practitioners about their professional journey and any insights they can share related to the future of our industry.
In this interview, we talk with Rowena Ortiz-Walters, who is currently dean of the State University of New York Plattsburgh’s School of Business and Economics, and was recently appointed incoming dean of the Greehey School of Business at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, beginning June 2021. She discusses what initially sparked her interest in business, from an earlier endeavor into chemistry; how connection to a network helps keep her focused; and why supporting underrepresented groups in business education is so critical. Finally, Ortiz-Walters offers some post-pandemic priorities for business schools.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as an educator, and why did you choose business education?
As a first-generation student, I had no guidance at home on selecting a major and career field, so I went with what seemed natural to me and selected chemistry. The challenge with the curriculum for hard sciences is that you really do not have space in your studies for anything other than math and science, so I never took a business course as an undergrad. When I worked later on as a chemist, I gained what was really my first exposure to business.
I started to notice employee titles like “project manager” and the kind of role they held when we met as a team to discuss project deadlines, standards, and goals. These different dynamics struck my interest and made me curious. At the time, young engineers were starting to get MBAs and, due to my competitive nature, I went and got mine. This was my first entre into business, and I absolutely loved it.
I went on to earn my PhD in management and wrote my dissertation on creativity in the workplace. I wanted to explore the factors that influenced creativity so I could understand how an educator might influence students. This insight would help inform my work as a business school educator and administrator.
I find business education fascinating, and I love how the new AACSB standards really emphasize that business can be a social good. Most people in business want to do a good job and support their employees, which I think we can better draw out and highlight in our work. I am interested in being part of the development of future leaders in this space.
How has membership with the AACSB Business Educational Alliance supported you in your role as dean?
Topics like how to lead, how to get a school set up for continuous improvement, and how to map strategic planning and goals are not necessarily intuitive. Having opportunities with AACSB for networking and professional development, like the AACSB Exchange, affinity groups, and events, is important.
Serving on peer review teams and connecting with other deans has also had a positive impact on me. The opportunity to visit different schools and build your network of deans and discuss common challenges, shows you the vast array of ways you can deliver quality business education based on a school’s mission and students they serve.
I also appreciate the focus on moving forward—having an external body hold us to a high standard helps us stay on track and makes sure business education continues to be a quality product but is also aligned with market changes.
AACSB’s mission is to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education. How does this mission support and align with the work you do each day as a business school dean?
One thing that surprised me when I became dean was, on a day-to-day basis, the difficulty I experienced with what I call emotional cognitive task-switching. On a given day I can go from a meeting about assurance of learning at 10:00 a.m., then an hour later perhaps I am speaking with an upset student, then at noon I go into a strategic planning session, followed by meetings with faculty about issues they might be having. As a dean, our days never look the same, and we switch from emotional to cognitive thinking frequently, which can be exhausting.
The pillars of AACSB’s mission help me to sit back and reflect on what I need to focus on. The faculty look to me for what is going on in the business world and in business education, and I look to AACSB, as the thought leader in this space, to stay informed on what is happening in engagement, impact, and innovation. It can be easy to stray from our mission with everything going on, so having these critical pillars guides us and aligns our priorities.
Business schools and business education leave a powerful imprint in society. AACSB is constantly scanning the environment and keeping us informed on the pressing issues.
You are currently chair of AACSB’s Women Administrators in Management Education (WAME) Affinity Group. Why are platforms like WAME important for women in higher education?
Mentoring is so important, and having access to this international network of women deans and educators is powerful. WAME is an incredible network of peers with vastly different experience, with both industry and different types of business schools. We can call each other anytime we are dealing with something challenging or need emotional support.
Representation matters, and WAME provides a platform for amplifying the voices of female leaders. As a female Hispanic dean, I want our Hispanic students to think about how big they can dream. For me, seeing female deans succeed is inspiring. Caryn Beck-Dudley, now leading AACSB as the CEO, is a great example. When you see a female leader move into a role like that, it allows female administrators to picture themselves doing the same. It normalizes what that leadership position looks like.
What advice would you give to women who aspire to become administrators in business education?
I think it is very advantageous for women who aspire to be deans to pursue roles where they are overseeing people and learning the human resources side of things. I feel this is the most critical part of the job—how to treat people with fairness, make them feel heard, and create processes to support these practices. I would also recommend pursing positions with high visibility so people can see what you are capable of accomplishing as a leader. This puts you in a position for others to sponsor you for future opportunities.
Associations and professional development organizations, like HERS (Higher Education Resource Services), are also very important because they help build a pipeline for women leaders in education. Any kind of professional development like this, and opportunities that AACSB provides, like the Aspiring Deans Seminar, are vital because no one person can excel on their own; it is a team effort.
Collectively we should also examine and strategize on how to reach and cultivate women faculty. There is a leadership deficit, and we must be intentional about developing the pipeline.
AACSB is proud to support The PhD Project in its mission to increase the diversity of business school faculty. Can you talk about your experience as a PhD Project participant and the program’s impact on your career?
The PhD Project provides an amazing network of trusted peers who call on each other for research collaborations, references and nominations, speaking opportunities, and other experiences that can help build our vitas. We are always thinking about our fellow PhD Project members and how we can provide support and visibility for each other.
The collaboration with AACSB and The PhD Project Aspiring Leaders has been incredibly impactful. We have trained around 150 minority faculty in the last five years, and more than 20 percent of those individuals have gone on to leadership position.
It’s vital that we understand the needs of minority doctoral students as well as how to get our current minority undergraduate and master’s students to consider a PhD, so we can continue to build this pipeline. The PhD Project is a key player in achieving this progress.
What are some key issues business school deans should be focusing no now? What about into the future?
I see the intersection of business and technology as crucial, and business schools should be preparing students for the workforce with that in mind.
As leaders, deans should be thinking about how we can leverage the disruption of COVID-19 and the impact it has had on us as schools of business. We need to ask ourselves, What lessons can we learn from this, and how might it shape our curriculum and our students?
Once we are through the pandemic, we can look at the opportunities that have opened, like geographical expansion with corporate partners through virtual internships. Now we need to look at the logistics of how to make this work, now and into the future.
In addition, the pandemic has brought to light the challenge of building culture in a virtual environment. The growing needs of the digital workplace will require innovative solutions, and people will look to business schools to lead the way. It is both nerve-wracking and exciting.