Appointing one female dean might be an accident; appoint two and it begins to look like a policy. It is an argument that is rapidly dismissed by Srilata Zaheer, the newly appointed dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, who succeeded Alison Davis-Blake this year.
Her riposte is dismissive: “It’s a non-issue for us”. If there were two consecutive male deans at a business school no one would question it, she says.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Prof Zaheer, however, is not that she is one of a small number of female business school deans, but that she became a high-flying academic at all.
“I’m a bit of an accidental dean,” she confesses. Indeed, after she graduated from IIM Ahmedabad’s post-graduate programme in her native India, she decided to became a business journalist and a businesswomen. It was only when she was working in Nigeria that she began teaching in a local university there – and loved it. As a result she enrolled for a PhD at MIT Sloan. That was more than 20 years ago and she has not looked back.
Now the top dog at Carlson, Prof Zaheer’s has nailed her colours to the mast. “My charge is to make the school a global brand.”
At first glance this is a tall order for a school located right in the heart of North America, in Minneapolis. But Prof Zaheer is undaunted. Minneapolis is the third-largest finance centre in the US, she points out, and home to some great global brands, such as General Mills, 3M and Cargill.
“They are global companies in our back yard,” she insists. “Our school has very strong relationships with these companies.”
Executives from the companies are regular visitors to the school, she says, and the proximity of these companies also means high rates of employment for graduates, with 97 per cent of the full-time students from the class of 2011 holding an offer within 90 days of graduation (although just 88 per cent accepted the offer within the same timeframe).
This year the dean expects the numbers to look even better, with hiring statistics tracking 20 per cent ahead of the figures for the same period a year ago.
There have been several attempts by Carlson in recent years to build global outreach, largely through the Executive MBA programmes for working managers that it has established with business schools in Poland, Austria and Guangzhou, China. The dean is hoping to launch a further programme in India in 2013. As a result there are Carlson alumni living in 78 countries, Prof Zaheer adds proudly, and she intends to visit as many as she can.
“I’m not sure I’ll get to all 78 countries, but I’ll try.”
It is hard to doubt the determination of the 58-year-old dean. Nonetheless, there is much to detract from her vision of a truly global business school. Just 24 per cent of enrolled full-time MBA students come from outside the US, from 16 countries, and although there are alumni living in 78 countries, 85 per cent of last year’s class stayed in the US Midwest on graduation. Of the living alumni of the school, more than half (52 per cent) live in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul.
And like all state universities in the US and beyond, funding is increasingly an issue. These days Carlson receives just a tiny fraction of its income from the state and Prof Zaheer acknowledges that “we’re going to have to think much more like a private school in terms of raising our endowment”.
However, the big local companies that provide jobs may yet prove to be an ally in Carlson’s efforts to become global, if only in a small way. Many of them are now planning to invest in, or expand, their overseas operations and so are hoping that the Carlson school can provide MBA graduates who come from outside the US and who would like to return to their home countries, such as China, India and Brazil, after a couple of years in Minneapolis.
And Prof Zaheer’s focus is clear. “One of our challenges,” she says, “has been to go and tell our story.” She has certainly made a head-start with that.