University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel speaks with AACSB's president and CEO, Caryn Beck-Dudley, about how business schools are well situated to influence change through community relationships, cross-disciplinary programming, and social equity efforts.
Related: The Future of Connecting
Caryn Beck-Dudley: [0:14] Hi, President Gabel, nice to see you.
Joan T.A. Gabel: [0:17] Good morning.
Beck-Dudley: [0:18] [laughs] I'm going to call you Joan since I've known you for over 20 years, if that's OK.
Gabel: [0:23] Pretty please, yes.
Beck-Dudley: [0:26] How's everything going in the beautiful state of Minnesota?
Gabel: [0:30] It is beautiful here right now. Fall is spectacular in the upper Midwest, and in some ways things are going really well. Like everybody else, we have tremendous complexity and challenges right now that we're working through one step at a time that I imagine will come through over the course of our discussion.
Beck-Dudley: [0:47] I think we'll get involved with that.
Gabel: [0:49] I imagine so [laughs].
Beck-Dudley: [0:51] We really appreciate you taking the time to be with us and to share some of your insights. I would like to start, you started as an assistant professor in Legal Studies and Business and worked through the ranks and became a department chair, and then a dean and then a provost, and now a president.
[1:07] What I want to have focus on first is what about your experience as the dean of the business school prepared you for your role as president and provost and now to lead a large major research intensive university in the United States?
Gabel: [1:22] I get asked that question a lot actually. I will say for those of you who are business school deans or who are aspiring business school deans, the business school deanship was actually better preparation for the presidency than it was for the provostship.
[1:38] As a business school dean, you are overseeing the academic excellence of your college or ensuring accreditation compliance. You're looking for ways to be innovative on behalf of your students, faculty, and staff on how to engage in the community.
[1:55] All deans are doing that, but business school deans in general do a few things that some of the other deans don't do, some do, but consistently business school deans work with some of our most capable highest capacity donors, which is a very big part of my job now.
[2:14] They're often very actively involved with the legislature, which is a very big part of my job. There is this baked-in external relations component in the community, because the businesses want to plug in. Often it's through the business school dean that the town and gown feels to be the shortest distance between the two points.
[2:37] That was tremendous preparation for what I'm doing now, but there were also things that I didn't realize would be good preparation. Business school dean is often a close partner with athletics for those of you who are at universities that have athletics programs.
[2:51] Actually, I got that advice from you, Caryn, when you were my dean. We were at a school that had very prominent and infused athletics into the culture. The understanding that many of the supporters of the business school also support athletics put me at a table that I probably wouldn't have been at otherwise.
[3:14] You also work a lot on budgets. You're expected to have an understanding of that, sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. When it says business school dean after your title, there are assumptions and that was good training.
Beck-Dudley: [3:28] Excellent. You've been in this role for how long as the president?
Gabel: [3:33] Less than a year-and-a-half.
Beck-Dudley: [3:34] Just now, what a crazy time to be president at a major university. You and I both don't come from a business school background as undergraduates. I come from political science, and you come from?
Gabel: [3:49] Philosophy.
Beck-Dudley: [3:50] Philosophy? [laughs] I actually think it prepared us both well for being business school deans. I'm really interested in how you're looking at cross-disciplinary partnerships. A lot of people assume business schools are like islands in and of themselves.
[4:04] They stay apart from the rest of the university. In this new environment or maybe even in an old environment, what do you think about cross-disciplinary partnerships between business schools and other entities within the university?
Gabel: [4:16] I think they're an absolute necessity. I think that we, in business school disciplines, need to take the lead because there are a couple of things about us that I didn't fully realize the rest of the campus doesn't understand until I was provost because, of course, I spent my whole career coming up through the ranks within the business school.
[4:37] You're in your echo chamber, and like most echo chambers, you don't realize you're in it. There are a couple of things about us that are important that we need to advocate and explain, so that the advantages of interdisciplinary work can be a part of what we do and what we contribute.
[4:54] One is that business school disciplines are really highly compatible with a lot of others like the liberal arts, humanities, political science, Math, economics obviously for those of us who don't have economics within.
[5:09] Also, in engineering, in any way that we think about innovation, how we think about communication and creativity. We are often the home through which students learn how to apply the other things that they do.
[5:26] Our ability to plug in to that, to be a point in the arc of a student's experience in the classroom and beyond the classroom, is something that we're in a unique position to offer. We should be offering it.
[5:41] I think that a lot of our colleagues across campus look at the business school as having a moat around it, sort of a silo, the way you described we have. The presumptions are, I'm generalizing of course, wealthy donors, your students don't study anything what the courses that you offer. You don't want your students to learn anything else.
[6:03] You don't want our students to have the advantage of what you do because you think it would dilute what you do and your students have baked-in job opportunities, and you don't want to share them.
[6:17] Others, who also think that the research that we do isn't real research. It is really an assumption that is very easy to dispel, but we need to dispel it and then what you see is a very broad student experience opportunity, very broad research collaborations, very broad service opportunities that we would all benefit from.
Beck-Dudley: [6:41] I hope that this pandemic has helped us to be able to expand that as we look at things, and we'll get to this a little bit later, but as we look at curriculum issues, as we look at subject matter issues, as we look at the future of work. Before I get to that question, I know that you've been in the heart of this, I get asked about it all the time.
[6:59] That's really the role of universities in particular, and business schools related to social inequalities and social inequities. Any words of advice for how you've been handling that and how you think about both roles?
Gabel: [7:15] Yes. This is a journey. I can talk about what we're doing, but with full transparency on the fact that we need to be doing more and we need to be doing better, but we are on the journey.
[7:28] I think the pandemic and the events surrounding George Floyd's tragic death have really exposed some disparities that we knew of. It's not like we were shocked and stunned to learn about these disparities, but it made it so utterly tangible that it became impossible for communities that may have been inclined to ignore it, could no longer do so.
[7:54] The work that we do, as universities, I see us in a cycle. We need to be a partner in the time that a prospective student spends preparing to come to university. We need to have the widest funnel possible in admitting students.
[8:11] The fact that we haven't been able to offer the SAT or ACT, and many of us have gone test optional this year, will be a very eye opening social experiment on how it is we assess readiness and preparedness, because there are ranging theories on whether or not the way in which we've been doing admissions really is fully welcoming.
[8:33] While we want to retain our standards, we can think about those standards more broadly. I think it's critically important that we have a fresh take on climate. All of the distance that we've had through Zoom gives us the real opportunity to do that, break bad habits, become aware of habits that we may not have been aware of before.
[8:54] Then, work very closely with our employers to understand what they need, so that we are maximizing opportunities for them to fulfill their equity goals. That they can inform us and even more directly now in how they do so and in our understanding of that.
[9:11] It's a loop, pre-college, entering college, time while in college, prepare for the community, that community then produces our future students. Are we serving them? Around we go.
[9:23] I think business schools are in a unique position to be drivers of that positive cycle because of their connectivity to the employers predominantly, and then in addition to everything they can do with everything else.
Recorded October 2020.