Exiting Georgetown Dean On His Five Years

Undergraduate students at the Real Estate Laboratory at Georgetown McDonough's Steers Center For Global Real Estate. The establishment of the center was one of many notable accomplishments under Thomas' leadership. Photo by Gary Landsman

Undergraduate students at the Real Estate Laboratory at Georgetown McDonough’s Steers Center For Global Real Estate. The establishment of the center was one of many notable accomplishments under Thomas’ leadership. Photo by Gary Landsman

It’s been almost a month since the announcement that you would step down as dean at Georgetown McDonough. After having some time to reflect, how do you feel about your decision?

It’s a mix of emotions, quite frankly. We’ve done some really great work at the McDonough School of Business. I love the school and the people there. In some ways, it’s hard to think about the fact I won’t be there leading that school and those individuals in the future. At the same time, I’m excited about the possibilities for the future. Decisions like this often have a developmental quality to them. And for me that developmental quality included the fact that I’ll turn 60 in September. There was a question of, “What do I want to do the next decade?” A decade in commitment of opening up the aperture to see what might be in sight. And that’s exciting.

It’s a mix and I think one of the things that allows me to leave the role at Georgetown was also that in five years, we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount and in many ways we’ve exceeded my expectations, which I think anyone who works for me will tell you I’m not one who lacks for high expectations. I’m leaving the school in a place that will keep it moving forward. We weren’t at a fragile state in terms of the progress we’ve made, and my exit would somehow jeopardize that. So I don’t feel guilty. But it is a mix of emotions.

From the outside it really seems like you were a well-liked dean and clearly the president of the university wanted you to come back. What were some of those conversations like on the inside with the president and other colleagues as you were wrestling through the decision?

In some ways they were conversations that were quite humbling, with people making clear that they thought we’d made a tremendous amount of progress under my leadership. Even more humbling is that many of the people who worked directly for me expressed that they actually liked working for me (laughing). I even had one faculty member in a leadership role say, “I never really thought of myself as having a boss but I’ve got to say, you are the best boss I’ve ever had.” So I guess the bottom line is, there was this combination of acknowledging how much progress we had made, hopping that I would stay, and at the same time understanding for why I was thinking about making the choice that I ultimately made.

We know you dig big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs) — what are your proudest accomplishments over your five-year tenure?

It’s interesting because the thing I’m most proud of is not mentioned or written in any article, but I’ve received over a hundred notes from people about my leaving, including many faculty. The most rewarding thing 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. That also speaks to the sense of community that we’ve created at the business school that joins the different constituencies of the school — faculty, staff, alumni, students, our corporate community — and actually, that’s the most rewarding thing.

There are particular accomplishments that I’m proud of, like the redesign of our MBA curriculum, which we did in my first year and implemented in my second year, which if you know much about curriculum reform in higher education, that’s pretty much lightspeed. And to see, with that, a 40% increase in applications to our full-time MBA program and to have our evening program be ranked number four because they basically have the same curriculum as the full-time program. And very much creating a culture where the students, in particular our student leadership, act as partners or have access throughout my five years — but in particular the last four years — as partners trying to make the school better. Which is to say, it’s not that students show up in my office like they do every dean in the country and give me chapter and verse about the things we need to improve, but they also come with solutions. They come in a way that doesn’t create a culture of complaint but really a culture of continual improvement and excellence.

You can’t be a dean for very long and hold respect of your internal constituency — your students and faculty — if you don’t raise money. Again, there our story is gratifying. When I arrived, our goal was $100 million. We were just coming out of the recession in 2011, many people didn’t think we could even make the $100 million because we had just finished the fundraising to put up the new building and we didn’t have any capital projects in this capital campaign. And we set our stretch goal publicly to be $125 million. At last count, we were at $130 million.

What I think that speaks to is, back to this idea of creating community. 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. Because the way I think about fundraising, if you have a capital project, 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. But what I think we did in this campaign was really to move our alumni and parent constituency to believe in the idea of the McDonough School of Business as a preeminent business school. And to get them to invest in things that are really about them trusting that vision and our ability do deliver on it. Because unlike a building, where you either build a building or you don’t, we can see the model, we can see if we like it before it’s actually up … getting people to invest in things like faculty chairs, our new Steers Global Real Estate Center, our entrepreneurship initiative, our global business initiative — these are all things that we’re saying, “Invest in these things and these will help take us to preeminence in terms of our ability to execute, and provide a distinguishing and transformational educational experience.” The business school had not gone through that kind of fundraising in its history. There were some people who thought the $100 million was a stretch, why say $125 million? And we went right past that. So that’s a major accomplishment, not just because of the number but because it represents our constituents and their feelings towards the school.

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