Meet the Deans

January 30, 2012 12:19 am

Alison Davis-Blake: a career academic

Alison Davis-Blake rattles off the statistics as if she has known them all her life. The University of Michigan has 43,000 students; 7 per cent of them are studying a business degree or business major; the university receives 5 per cent of its funds from the state.

Yet Prof Davis-Blake only joined the university a little over six months ago, when she was appointed dean of the Ross School of Business. Now it is her job to put it on the global map.

Prof Davis-Blake, 53, is a career academic with a PhD from Stanford and lists of publications to her name. In that, this business-like expert on strategic human resource management is perhaps emblematic of the school she now runs, an institution that is high on substance, but often reticent to shout about it.

Over the years, the Ross school has been a pioneer of innovative course and curriculum design.

Action-based learning, in which students learn through consultancy projects rather than lectures or case studies, has been on the curriculum for 25 years. And it was one of the first US business schools to recognise the need for students to develop a global mindset. These days, 80 per cent of Ross students have an action-learning experience outside their home country.

For many top US business schools, including Harvard, these kinds of projects are only just hitting the agenda. Indeed, Michigan already does many of the things for which other top US schools are earning column inches. At Stanford, for example, one in every six MBA students is studying for their second degree at the university, yet the proportion at Ross is similar.

So why is Michigan not more globally visible? “Midwest modesty” is one reason, believes the dean. But she is also realistic.

“Michigan is not the school for every student,” she concedes. It is in Ann Arbor, a Midwest university town, not New York, San Francisco or Hong Kong. And the business school is part of a large, full-service university, not a standalone campus.

It is also a state university, rather than a member of the exclusive Ivy League. But then, Prof Davis-Blake is an advocate of US state higher education. Before joining Ross, she was dean at the Carlson school at the University of Minnesota, and before that a professor at the McCombs school at the University of Texas at Austin.

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For many, state education is all about the funding, but at Ross this is largely academic. The business school is essentially tuition driven, with just 0.9 per cent of its funds coming from the state, and 71 per cent of income from fees.

However, money is a big issue. Even though alumnus Stephen Ross gave the school $100m in 2004, the total endowment of $364m is not enough to support operations, says the dean. Indeed, fundraising is high on her agenda.

But Prof Davis-Blake says the defining issue of state universities relates to ethos, and to the notions of public service and inclusion. “We need to educate all sectors in society,” she says.

In a polite but firm swipe at the FT rankings – one criterion in the rankings is alumni pay – she says life is not all about money. “I see more and more students thinking, ‘What kind of outcome do I really want? What does a better job mean?’ A better job means I can make a bigger contribution to society. A better job is having more influence over society.”

That is something state universities are well placed to deliver, she asserts. The message must be getting through, because as other business schools admit to falling applications and enrolment rates this year, the Ross school can boast that applications for its MBA programme are up 7.6 per cent.

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