Dean Of The Year: The Cajun From New Orleans


Danos, a soft-spoken man with impeccable manners who is now 72 years of age, seemed an unlikely academic. His parents were Cajuns, who migrated from the Bayou Lafourche to the West Bank of the Mississippi across from New Orleans in the 1930s. They were hard working, uneducated people who spoke a unique dialect of the French language. Until Danos’ father went into business for himself, the family was poor by modern standards, living in a home with no carpets, drapes, central heating or air conditioning. Around the dinner table, there was little discussion about the outside world–on government, on foreign affairs, even sports.

“As might be true for any young American from a humble subculture whose parents’ first language was not English, I went through a period of lamenting my meager preparation for life and career,” wrote Danos in a book of Cajun stories he authored called The Other Side of the River. “All of that is gone now, except as a dull memory, but it was real and painful far into my adulthood, and like all profound experiences it probably became part of my makeup.”

It was when Danos was all of 15 years of age that he taught himself accounting and began keeping the books for his father’s business, a supplier to the growing oil industry in the area. The experience would ultimately guide him to major in the subject at the University of New Orleans and to become a certified public accountant. For five years after college, he worked in accounting for Freeport Moran in New Orleans, eventually supervising accounting groups running different business units in the company.


His evening classes to earn an MBA degree from the University of New Orleans gave him deeper exposure to academia. “I started thinking about applying to PhD programs and started reading what was expected of you,” he recalls. “It was an exciting moment in accounting and finance because it was the time of explosion of data and being able to analyze things. All of that interested me, and I realized you could make a good living in academia as long as you were good enough to get a PhD and publish papers. I found it a viable path.”

Danos was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Texas’s business school. He quit his job and became a full-time adjunct teacher of accounting for a year at the University of New Orleans until starting his PhD the following summer. It was a big leap for him. “There were only two times in my life that I felt I was in over my head: when I started teaching full-time and when I first presented at a PhD seminar. I realized how easy it is to be a critic and how hard it is to be the author of a work.”

After earning his PhD in 1974, he was recruited to the University of Michigan’s business school by then Dean Gil Whitaker who could become a mentor along with his successor Joe White. Danos taught accounting, chaired the accounting group, and then after 15 years in the trenches of academia, he became associate dean and then senior associate dean of the MBA program at Michigan. It was in this role that he, along with professor Noel Tichy and Jim Danko, now president of Butler University, created what to this day remains the defining attribute of the school’s MBA program: the Multidisciplinary Action Projects, which brought teams of students working on real corporate challenges. It would become one of the pioneering experiential programs in business education.


“I had been teaching in the MBA program for some time and it was kind of classic and not all that exciting,” remembers Danos. “We started thinking about what could add an exciting element in the late 1980s.” A committee he chaired designed a new core curriculum, with this experiential addition. “It was pretty radical. We carved out a seven-week block where all the students did was this MAP project. Most experiential things don’t take up half a term so even today the MAP program is different than most because they work full time for seven weeks on a single project.” Surprisingly, there was little faculty opposition, even though it meant compressing other courses to make room for the projects.

Then, Tuck called. Danos admits his knowledge of Northern New England was so sparse that he had asked his wife, Mary Ellen, to get out the family atlas to see where Hanover, N.H., was located. When he started the job in July of 1995, he found a tight-knit school that had a superb reputation for its teaching faculty, but was light on academic research. Gradating only 180 MBAs a year also made Tuck less attractive to many corporate recruiters. Hansen recalls a conversation he had with a visiting recruiter from Ford Motor. “I told him, ‘I hope you’re having a good time, and he said, ‘So do I because if I don’t get someone, I don’t know if I’ll come back next year.'”

Adds Helfat: “We were simply not at a large enough scale when Paul came here. You need critical mass to have a presence as a top business school in the world. My view is that we were below critical mass and below critical mass in research faculty. He did a phenomenal job of bringing us up to minimum scale.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.