AACSB President Tom Robinson never imagined himself as a public speaker back in his days as a high school student. He carefully avoided organizations like the debate club and other commitments that would thrust him in the limelight. As a senior tax consultant at Deloitte & Touche in the 1980s, he was on track to maintain his low profile until his manager asked him one day to give a presentation about the tax aspects of running a business for the Small Business Administration. “I don’t do public speaking,” he told his boss, who informed him that it wasn’t a request. Robinson begrudgingly gave the presentation, and, to his surprise, discovered public speaking wasn’t nearly as hard as he’d thought. “I found out it was easy to speak about something I knew about,” he says. “I decided I really liked teaching.”
That discovery changed his career aspirations, and ultimately led him to a 14-year tenure as an accounting professor and administrator at the University of Miami, followed by a nearly decade-long run at the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute, where he oversaw the education division and later served as managing director of the Americas. In his latest role, as president and chief executive officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), he’s having a larger impact on the education world than he ever could have imagined back when he started his teaching career in the 1980s.
“I was impacting 1,000 students a year as a professor, and at the CFA Institute, I was impacting 200,000 CFA candidates a year,” says Robinson, who was tapped as AACSB’s CEO in May of 2015. “With my transition to AACSB, I now have an impact on millions of business students. That’s what excites me the most about the role.”
BRIDGING THE ACADEMIC AND BUSINESS WORLDS
For the last year and a half, Robinson has familiarized himself with the mission and goals of the nonprofit organization, the main accrediting body for schools worldwide, which gives a much sought-after seal of approval to business and accounting programs worldwide. Now that the “honeymoon” phase is over, he says, he’s busy communicating AACSB’s recently announced new vision for business schools with deans and administrators at B-schools across the U.S. and the world. He has a packed schedule that puts him on the road about 50 percent of the time; this fall he will visit schools in Latin America, the U.S., Asia and Europe.
Robinson was tapped for the role at AACSB in part because of his experience bridging the academic and business worlds, something he says he’s been doing since the very early days of his career when he was balancing his accounting career with part-time teaching gigs. His expertise has come in useful at a time when AACSB has been going through a deep reflection process on the ways it can help business schools adapt to the significant shifts in the educational landscape of the last decade, from how to adapt to new technology to how to best serve the business community.
Poets&Quants recently spoke with Robinson in a wide-ranging interview about AACSB’s newly announced “Collective Vision for Business Education” and what it means for B-schools, how the nonprofit is responding to growing demand for accreditation in international markets, and what he believes are the most important curricular innovations happening at undergraduate and graduate business programs today.
What appealed to you about serving as president and CEO of AACSB, and how did your time at the CFA Institute prepare you for this role?
The role at AACSB was a perfect transition for me. I started my career practicing public accounting and did that for almost a decade. While I was practicing accounting, I started teaching, first internally for Deloitte’s CPA firm and then part-time at Ohio State University’s business school. That’s what led to my interest in teaching and spurred me to go get my Ph.D. Once I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching, I still continued to be involved with practice. For the first stage of my career, I was bridging practice and academia, and was heavily involved with the CFA Institute as a volunteer and author of some of their curriculum. Nine years ago, I was selected to run education for them globally. When I was approached about working for AACSB, they were looking for someone who had academic and practice experience. I’d been doing that for most of my career, so it was a perfect fit for me. Over time, at least there has been a perception that the academic business school environment has moved away from business and become a little too theoretical. They wanted to help bring them closer together, which is one of the reasons they selected me. My research was very practical and relevant for what was happening in the industry. That’s what interested me in this job, being able to make a difference and help bridge the gap between business and academia.
What are some of AACSB’s important initiatives you’ve been involved with since taking the helm in 2015?
When I came in, the organization had already started a visioning process, and the AACSB had a committee looking at issues in management education. They were looking at technology and what is happening in business, and figuring out what was happening in business schools as well. They’d also been considering what were the opportunities and threats there were to business education. They’d been meeting for a couple of years collecting information and reports from various sources. They were about midway through that process when I came in. Over the last year-and-a-half, we finished up that process and issued last April at our annual meeting what we called our Collective Vision on Business Education. We decided there were five major opportunities for business schools and the direction we thought they should head. At the same time we started our strategic planning process for our organization to elevate what we needed to do to support our vision for the next five years. That’s what has kept us busy for the last year and a half. If they had gone through the strategic planning process before I got there, I wouldn’t have had any hand in it. The timing of me coming in when I did enabled me to be an active participant and help shape it.