When Alison Davis-Blake officially leaves her post as dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business on June 30, she’ll do so with the school, in many ways, better than she found it. During her five-year stint, she turned a $40 million deficit in the school’s budget into $13 million in reserves. More people applied to Ross’ full-time MBA program for the fall of 2015 than ever before. In slashing the MBA class size by about a hundred, the school has been able to rein in a soaring acceptance rate and boast record-setting GMAT scores for last fall’s entering class. The undergraduate business program, meantime, continues to thrive with nearly 1,500 students.
Yet, a sizable portion of the school’s faculty has consistently lost confidence in Davis-Blake’s leadership of the school and her ability to promote a collegial, supportive environment. Publicly available surveys of the school’s faculty clearly show that the first female leader in Ross’ history is among the lowest-rated deans on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. Her tenure as dean has significantly polarized the school’s faculty, most visibly noted in the continual bickering between Ross professors on an article published by Poets&Quants last month.
RARELY PUBLIC DATA REVEALS LESS-THAN-STELLAR REPORT CARD FOR DEAN
The faculty data on views of her performance, which can be viewed in its entirety here, stretches back more than a decade and includes faculty responses from 18 major schools and colleges on the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus, including the law school, medical school, and college of engineering, as well as the four colleges from the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.
That faculty report card contains some fairly disapproving grades for Ross’ dean. On a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 reflecting the best possible performance, Davis-Blake received a grade of 2.5 for the 2014-2015 academic year from faculty for their confidence in her leadership. Only four of 18 deans on the Ann Arbor campus received lower scores. In contrast, the dean of the university’s law school was given a score of 4.4 in earning the confidence of his faculty, while the deans of both the engineering and education schools received 4.67 scores.
The Ross faculty also gave Davis-Blake a shockingly low score of 2.1 on her ability to promote a “collegial environment” at the business school. Only one other dean scored lower on this measure in 2014-2015. Asked if the dean consults with faculty adequately before making important decisions, Ross professors gave Davis-Blake an average score of 2.23 — well below the 4.4 accorded the dean of the law school or the 3.96 given to the dean of the school of education. In every one of the four years measured, Davis-Blake’s performance on these key metrics was below the median.
‘WE WERE ONE OF THESE SCHOOLS THAT WAS LIKE 100 DEALS FOR 99 FACULTY’
The poor grades, though, appear to reflect merely the surface of a tumultuous, multi-dimensional story playing out over the five years of Davis-Blake’s deanship. For many in academia, where politics can be as thick as they are in Washington, D.C., it is a controversial tale that will likely resonate with administrators, faculty and staff. Disputes between deans and faculty are hardly uncommon but this is the rare one that has spilled into the open.
According to her supporters, Dean Davis-Blake is a courageous leader for taking on long-standing inequities at the school and reversing the school’s dismal financials. She tied faculty pay increases to performance and raised significant money for the school. Her detractors, on the other hand, allege that she was a dean who could be petty, if not vindictive, keen on settling scores, and playing favorites. They claim she was a divisive leader who leaves for her successor an openly divided faculty at Ross.
When Davis-Blake came to Michigan Ross after a five-year term as dean of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, she faced at least two issues: a school that was in the red and an academic culture in which numerous “deals” had been made between faculty members and her predecessor deans. According to insiders at Michigan Ross, she set out to fix both, no matter the cost.
“We were one of these schools that was like 100 deals for 99 faculty,” says Wally Hopp, the Herrick professor of business and former associate dean of Faculty and Research. “Everybody went to the dean and negotiated some kind of special arrangement. Things like, ‘I get a preferential teaching mode,’ or ‘I get extra funds for this or that.’ It was all kind of negotiated.” The problem with such a system? It’s pretty unfair, Hopp says. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease and the not-squeaky wheels deserving of the grease don’t get it,” he continues. “And they become unhappy about that.”
FINGER POINTING ON FACULTY DEPARTURES
Unhappy, indeed. So unhappy that some believe Davis-Blake was forced out of her post by a few disgruntled higher-ups, including Stephen Ross himself. Others believe Davis-Blake did the forcing out. At the center of the debate was the exodus of elite faculty members Karl Weick and Claes Fornell, which happened within months of Davis-Blake taking over as dean. Also to leave quickly was Robert Kennedy, who became dean of Western University’s Ivey Business School.
When two research and academic stars leave, petty finger pointing is likely to surface. At least a few were aimed at the new leader on campus. But according to Davis-Blake, she has never even met Fornell. And Weick, she says, was closing in on retirement age. On a May 20th phone call with Poets&Quants, the dean said her only interaction with Fornell was via email and that she had nothing to do with him, Weick or Kennedy leaving Ross. “The implication that I somehow drove these people away is not correct for these people — it’s not correct in general,” she asserted, also noting that placing Kennedy in the same arena with Fornell and Weick is “bizarre.”
Regardless of the reasons for their departure, one faculty member who chose to remain anonymous tells Poets&Quants that losing those two was a “mistake,” noting the difficulty in attempting to change uniform standards overnight with no exceptions.
“If you were running a center like Claes Fornell was (American Customer Satisfaction Index), and losing that — which Alison did not do, that had already moved out before she was here — but losing him is ridiculous,” the faculty member says. “If it were up to me and I didn’t care about equity, I would say, ‘Claes, how about you never teach ever and we give you 10 offices and as big a staff as you want, just never leave.’ But unfortunately, as soon as she makes one side deal like that, all of the other people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I want a side deal too.'”