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As new dean of Weatherhead School of Management, whose daring Frank Gehry building has attracted much attention, Myron Roomkin faces a curious problem. “Quite honestly, there are parts of the building I still have trouble walking into without getting vertigo,” he says.
Physical discomfort aside, however, Prof Roomkin sees Gehry’s designs as crucial to his vision for the school. “There’s not a right angle in the building, so it’s very difficult for us in good conscience to promote education that’s traditional,” he explains.
“We need to be bold and innovative to match this architecture.”
But mild vertigo is not the only challenge Prof Roomkin faces in his post. The school’s recent history has been stormy. In the past few years, the dean’s office at Weatherhead, part of Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, has been described as a “revolving door”, with a succession of interim and short-lived deans passing through it.
Tragedy struck last year, when a shooting in the building killed one student and injured two others. And in 2002, Peter B Lewis, the building’s benefactor, made headlines when he imposed a boycott of charitable contributions on Cleveland, his hometown, after he claimed the university was mismanaging its finances.
Such turbulence does not rattle Prof Roomkin, who has described the school as an “under-performing asset”. “When you’re inside these systems, all these problems become overwhelming,” he says. “People feel like Gulliver, completely tied down. But an outsider can come in who doesn’t share the history and knows what needs to be done.”
That knowledge comes from many years working in the business education industry.
Before replacing former Weatherhead dean Mohsen Anvari - who stepped down in January to create Case’s Institute for Corporate Governance - Prof Roomkin was dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University.
An expert in labour relations, he spent more than 20 years in various faculty positions at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University before joining American University.
Armed with such experience, and with a new set of leaders at the university under Edward Hundert, who was appointed as president of Case in late 2002, Prof Roomkin believes he can turn things round.
“Combine that [new leadership] with a restructured board of trustees, the academic quality of the other schools at Case and the fact that you’re next door to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the world’s great medical establishments, and you’ve got to believe there’s a lot going for you,” he says.
Case’s stature is important to the new dean. For if the Gehry building sets the tone, the wider university is the main prong to a strategy through which Prof Roomkin hopes to develop partnerships between the business school and other parts of the university, such as the engineering school and the medical school.
When it comes to executive education, the dean’s idea is to build stronger relationships with the local business community in northern Ohio, before looking further afield for clients. At the same time, he believes the school needs to find consortium partners in other institutions so that, as a group, they can compete with the top forces on the executive education scene.
While the rankings are important to the new dean, he is adamant he will not be tyrannised by them.
“In five years’ time, I want to be a player. But I’ll take brand recognition in lieu of a ranking number, so that when they mention Weatherhead, someone says: ‘That’s a bold place; that’s a place of innovation in management education.’ I’d prefer that than to sit around and wring our hands that we’re only 22nd and not 21st on the list.” But he stresses that the US business education industry is in “crisis mode” and he and his colleagues at other schools can no longer afford to sit back and do nothing.
“What’s happened is that business schools got strong, they got wealthy and they built a moat around themselves. And they put the faculty on the ramparts to keep out the incursions from other parts of the university and central administration,” he explains. “That model isn’t well suited for the needs of business schools today.”
Prof Roomkin believes this “moat mentality” - combined with other factors such as tougher US immigration policies that have made it harder to attract international students - means US business schools are losing their edge, with European schools providing increasingly stiff competition for their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.
“In part it’s our fault - we’re the ones that kept lowering teaching loads and paying them more,” he says. “We’re the ones who set the priorities as administrators - and we said: ‘Research counts; we will give you the resources.’ So we’ve created this monster and it’s going to take a while to change.”
Prof Roomkin’s work as a sculptor - when he is not shaping business education - will help. The three dimensionality of sculpture, he says, forces the artist to see things from all sides and, once an idea is formed, the execution is relatively easy.
Getting faculty to change, he admits, will be tough. “It’s a lot easier to carve stone,” he says. “But nothing focuses one’s mind like the guillotine - and American business schools are in serious trouble. My job is to get across to the faculty that this challenge can be met if we, as partners, recognise that we’re all in this together.”