Feature of the Week

November 7, 2011 12:01 am

‘Think of me as a teacher and then a dean’

Your face is your fortune, or so the saying goes. For Robert Dammon, the newly appointed dean of the Tepper school at Carnegie Mellon university, it may well be true. He is hoping that when alumni see the familiar face of their former professor, they will be willing to get out their cheque books for the school.

For although the business school received $55m from David Tepper in 2004, the ninth dean of the business school is looking for more. “It [$55m] is not enough for what we need,” he comments.

He should know. As a specialist in financial economics, his teaching life has revolved around topics such as corporate finance and business restructuring.

The school’s endowment provides just 5 per cent of the annual operating budget, he says. “I would like to reduce our dependence on graduate tuition.”

So he has spent the past few months travelling to gauge support from alumni. And that is where the friendly face comes in. Prof Dammon started to teach at the business school in 1984, which means that 75-80 per cent of the school’s 10,000 alumni have been taught by the 55-year-old dean.

However, this might not be the shoo-in it first seems.

“I was a pretty strict grader,” admits Prof Dammon wryly. But he quickly counters by adding that he considers himself to be a good teacher; the fact that he was awarded the school’s excellence in teaching award on three occasions bears independent testament to this.

Biography: Robert Dammon

1956 Born La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small city on the Mississippi River.

1978 Graduated with a bachelor's degree from University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse.

1980 Earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1984 Graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a PhD in financial economics and joined the business school at Carnegie Mellon.

2008 Appointed associate dean for education at the Tepper school.

May 2011 appointed dean.

Good teaching is something he intends to promote at the school, an institution that is highly regarded for its technical knowhow and rigorous research.

“I want to set up a reward system that rewards teaching as well as research,” says Prof Dammon, who intends to continue teaching on the MBA.

“I don’t know a better way of signalling that teaching is important. I want them [faculty and students] to think of me as a teacher and a professor and then a dean.”

Today the Tepper MBA enrols just 200 students a year. If the dean can raise funds to construct a new business school building – “The key priority is to get new premises,” he says – then the class size will increase, but to just 300, a third of the size of Harvard, Wharton or Insead.

He adds: “A lot of students look for smaller,
more intim­ate, community-oriented classes. They’re not just another name on a grade sheet. It really sets up a true community.” And, as he concedes, demographic trends mean that “the MBA is not growing in demand, except for in India”.

Making good teaching a hallmark of the institution will not reduce the emphasis on technical knowhow, however.

“Technology is going to become much more important. Our students are very tech-savvy . . . The use of technology permeates our whole community.”

This may prove to be another distinctive point of the Tepper MBA, says Prof Dammon. “I have the feeling that some US programmes are becoming less rigorous in the belief that they will become more relevant.”

In common with many contemporary deans, Prof Dammon is keen to work with other schools in the university, in what he calls the “innovation ecosystem”.

However, he is not a fan of another of the big trends – overseas studies. “If you’re going to do these international things, they need to have strong academic content. We’re not in the business of being a travel agent . . . There’s only so much you can do in two years.

“You’re educating people for the next 40 years. The question is, what is the highest value activity we can do as a school?”

The answer, he says, is the fundamentals of business and the framework to solve business problems, not just of today but of the next 20 to 30 years. “A lot of the value they [students] get from these trips I believe they could do in other ways.”

While technical skills are often needed at the start of an MBA career, leadership skills are needed later and Prof Dammon is keen to help alumni develop these, bringing back students for a four- or five-day programme a few years after they graduate. “It gives them something to value.”

It may also persuade them to put their hands in their pockets to support their alma mater.

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