Sometimes, big changes and upward trajectory don’t show up in all the ways we wished. A perfect case in point is the five-year deanship of David Thomas at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. By many accounts, the former Harvard Business School professor did everything right. He surpassed a $100 million campaign goal that didn’t involve any funds for actual capital by $30 million. He revamped and implemented an entire full-time MBA curriculum within his first two years on the job. Full-time MBA apps zoomed at a 40% clip in the past five years. And McDonough’s community is more diverse and tight-knit than ever before. But those pesky rankings don’t reflect any of that.
Not yet, says Thomas.
“If I look at the momentum of the school, I would say to the next dean we now have the momentum and are clear about the levers that we need to pull and the investments we need to make to actually move to that next level, much in the way that Yale did,” Thomas, 59, says in an interview with Poets&Quants. When Joel Podolny was dean of Yale’s School of Management, he asked Thomas to join the board of advisers. “I saw the arc of the school and I think we’ve built that launching pad for the next move of punctuated equilibrium and steepening trajectory into the top ten,” continues Thomas, who will be stepping down as the school’s dean on Aug. 1.
During Thomas’ tenure, the school crept up from 23rd in 2011 to 22nd from 2012 to 2014 in Poets&Quants’ composite ranking before sliding to 24th in the most recent set of rankings. Still, McDonough’s full-time MBA program made significant moves in Businessweek’s rankings, climbing from 33rd in 2011 to 26th in 2015. Meantime, the program fell from 35th to 41st in Forbes’ ranking. The volatility likely says more about bogus methodologies than significant programmatic changes. But it’s still an annoyance for a dean leading significant and widely well-regarded changes and improvements.
“There is a frustration there,” Thomas says, “because when I look at some of the schools that rank above us in some of the rankings, I sometimes shake my head because a few of them have essentially shrank their full-time MBA programs in order to get better GMATs and higher job placement.” Thomas is vague about why he turned down the university for a second term, but you get the impression that after recently turning 60, he wasn’t looking forward to spending five more years as the dean of a business school. After one year of sabbatical at Georgetown, Thomas will return to faculty and research at Harvard Business School.
A CAPITAL CAMPAIGN WITHOUT A CAPITAL PROJECT
To be sure, rankings are hardly a sufficient measurement of a dean’s performance. As Thomas reflects on the last five years, he points to the more than 100 notes of encouragement he says he’s received in the past few weeks, following his announcement that he would step down as dean. “The most rewarding thing,” Thomas begins, “is the ways in which people describe us having changed the culture of the business school in a way that really points us towards excellence, that points us toward a shared and common vision for what we can be.”
A large part of the cultural change and closer community stems from an energized group of constituents, Thomas says. To meet the $100 million capital campaign goal, creating a sense of pride and community — especially within the alumni, parent, and corporate partner groups — was essential. “What we were able to do was energize our alumni community and our parent community around the idea of what Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business can be,” Thomas explains. If you have a capital project to sell people on, asking for money gets a lot easier, he points out. “People can imagine the building, you can show them a model or drawing of the building and show them where their name will be on a plaque.”
Unfortunately, Thomas was dealt a disadvantage, stepping into a fundraising role in 2011 when the school had a two-year-old building and a population still recovering from the recession. “What I think we did in this campaign was really move our alumni and parent constituency to believe in the idea of the McDonough School of Business as a preeminent business school,” Thomas says. “And to get them to invest in things that are really about them trusting that vision and our ability do deliver on it.”
Thomas sold stakeholders on moves like hiring new faculty chairs, going into bidding wars for more diverse and accomplished faculty members, gaining the resources to build new initiatives around entrepreneurship and global business, and essentially the ability of himself and his staff to execute. “The business school had not gone through that kind of fundraising in its history,” Thomas says.
THE NEXT DEAN’S TO-DO LIST
Despite his belief that he is leaving the school better off than it was five years ago, Thomas acknowledges some challenges for the incoming dean. Starting August 2, the interim dean will be finance professor and International Business Chair, Rohan Williamson, who has been on McDonough’s faculty for two decades. If Williamson gets the “interim” removed from the front of his new title, Thomas believes his first task will be asking the school’s community to open their wallets again.
“Even though we’ve got this new building that’s only seven years old, we’ve already outgrown it,” Thomas says. “So the next capital campaign will have some capital elements to it, which also requires thinking about what should be the physical presence of the school.”
Thomas also believes the undergraduate program needs at least a curricular evaluation. Finally, he says, the next dean will need to focus on how to implement technologies to further McDonough’s preeminence. In a robust and candid interview, Thomas reveals why he thinks McDonough is poised for a rankings jump, why the full-time MBA program has lost some admitted applicants to competitive schools, and what he plans to do next.
(The transcript has been edited for length and readability.)