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Future Shock

Women trailblazers: Leading America’s business schools

Today’s women trailblazers leading business schools and universities bring fresh perspectives and creative solutions
University Business, December 2013

For the first time in history, a woman has been appointed to chair the Federal Reserve—among the most important economic policy-making positions in the world. In her new role as the Fed Chair, Janet Yellen now faces the dual challenges of mitigating post-2008 monetary policies, while stimulating economic growth and reducing unemployment—all that in the midst of a “jobless recovery.”

Not entirely unlike the pressures facing the Federal Reserve, today’s women business school leaders are facing intense pressure to make their schools even more competitive in an increasingly saturated business school market. In the last academic year, women made up about 18 percent of U.S. business school deans, up from 12 percent in 2002, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Most business school executives who we listened to agree that there are several common attributes of successful 21st century business schools: first, today’s business schools need savvy business and political leaders who surround themselves with the right senior staff; second, successful business schools need to attract and retain talented female faculty; third, business schools need to actively recruit competitive female students; and fourth, business school leaders must possess the ability to manage change—particularly in a rapidly changing MBA marketplace.

Cathy Minehan, dean of the Simmons School of Management in Boston; Kerry Healey, president of Babson College in Massachusetts; Christina Poon, dean of The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business; and Anna Rominger, dean of Indiana University Northwest’s School of Business and Economics are four women who were at the right place at the right time with the right stuff to steer their institutions in powerful new directions.

Ranked by The Princeton Review as the No. 1 MBA program with unique opportunities for women, and the No. 4 small school MBA program for integrating social responsibility and sustainability by The Aspen Institute, Simmons College welcomed Minehan as dean in 2011. Minehan had previously served as the first woman head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, in that position since 1994.

In a recent Boston Globe editorial on Janet Yellen’s appointment, Minehan said, “I think a bit of concern for the difficulty of [Yellen’s] dive is appropriate. We want—indeed, we need—Yellen to be successful, as that is essential to the continuing growth of our economy and the health of our financial system. In turn, she will need all our support as she fills this uniquely important position.”

Before becoming the 13th president of Babson College in Massachusetts and its first female president this past July, Kerry Healy served as the 70th lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. This year, for the 17th consecutive time, Babson was ranked No. 1 in entrepreneurship by U.S. News and World Report. As Healy proudly lauded, “We celebrate these rankings as yet another clear indication that our unique approach … and the positive impact it prepares our students to make in the world … continues to earn the admiration and respect of our peers.”

Coming from a 30-year career in the health-care industry, Christina Poon became OSU’s business school dean in 2009. As former vice chairman and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, Poon’s appointment is part and parcel of a broader trend in business school appointments—tapping into business executives for their real world knowledge and experience in the field.

Poon also earned a place on Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women” list, and blazed new trails early on in her tenure at Ohio State by creating a unique collaboration between the business school and local businesses. Responding to questions from The Columbus Dispatch, Poon said: “We think first and foremost about the students. How do we attract great students here? How do we give them an extraordinary experience? What role can linkages with the business community play to lift up and elevate that student experience?”

Anna Rominger at IU Northwest’s School of Business and Economics earned trailblazer status for creating a new interdisciplinary core of business ethics. A recent study by the Academy of Management Learning and Education found that women deans of business schools were more likely to require students to take a business ethics class than their male counterparts: 35 percent compared to 24 percent, respectively. With this perspective in mind, accreditors like the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs give business schools flexibility on how they incorporate ethics into their curriculums, either as a stand-alone course or integrated into other foundational courses.

Collectively, today’s women trailblazers leading business schools and universities bring fresh perspectives and creative solutions to the places and programs they lead. Their outside-the-ivory-tower real world experience has made them innovative and passionate leaders—committed to breaking through glass ceilings and educating the next generation of women leaders in business, entrepreneurship, politics and global commerce.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.