Dean Q&A: Rice MBA’s Peter Rodriguez

Professor Patricia Naranjo (Right) with a Rice MBA student between classes

P&Q: Last year, when you were being interviewed to be dean, what were the biggest selling points of the Rice MBA program? As an extension of that, if you had to make an elevator pitch to a prospective student, what would you say?

PR: I lived in Charlottesville for 13 years and was delighted to be at Darden. It’s a great place. The things that I saw clearly (and early) at Rice made it a relatively easy decision to apply and want to become the dean.

Mostly, the school had terrific strategic foundations and they also had an ambition to match. Those two things together are rare. By strategic foundations, what stood out to me was that Rice had a sterling, superb academic reputation, particularly at the undergraduate level. I think the people who know Rice know it for that reason as an undergraduate institution. It’s Ivy League caliber, highly selective and has produced some great grads. So it had a great academic base from which to build.

It’s also a small and selective school in a very big and diverse city with lots of Fortune 100 and 500 companies around it. While we do share the region with the University of Houston and even the University of Texas and Texas A&M, there’s plenty of room for us. We’re not in an area that is sated with opportunities for an academic institution to play a role in the commercial life of the city and leverage the presence of the large organizations that we have here.

Lastly, it was obvious to me that the school had been on the rise and had been making the right investments to prepare it to be part of a very distinctive list of top schools in the country. They had added the Ph.D. program not too long ago. They built a very lovely building. They’ve emulated the very best pedagogical characteristics of top programs. And they made the tradeoffs to scholarships in a way to begin to get some of the very best students too. It was clear to me that the ambition was there and the foundations were strong enough that we could really make this school excel and also continue to thrive in the rankings.

For an elevator pitch, I would say the disclaimer is that I don’t have a pitch. But the things that I would emphasize are simple. You could come to the school and have the colleagues and experience that you would only get at one of the top 10-15 schools in the country. Then, you would get it at a scale in which you would know everyone and be known by everyone. You will create a bond that is richer than any of the ones you would get there. If you could have that same quality of experience at that same level of peers in your group but at a scale that’s more personal and human, then we’re the best match for you in an MBA program. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t necessarily pitch discipline A, B, C, or D. They’re strong across the board.

Dean Peter Rodriguez

P&Q: One of your academic fascinations is with nature of corruption. In your personal life, you are passionate about photography. What are some things about you as Peter Rodriguez the person that you would like students, faculty, and staff to know about you?

PR: If I had to define myself in a way that’s accessible, I would definitely say that I am just really a student. I’ve continued to be a student forever. When things are going right and it’s spring, students might say, ‘I really don’t want to graduate.’ I tell them, “You really don’t have to. I didn’t. I just stuck around and found ways to be here.”

To be a student, I think means a couple of things. I’m interested in so many things, whether it is photography, sports, or travel. Almost anything that is new and interesting piques my interest. That’s where I really get juiced. I wouldn’t say I have a great sense of seriousness. I love to listen to standup comedians or get a laugh. That’s the best way for me to de-stress. I love being in the university setting. The things you get here are hard to get in other places. It’s not a default in any way. You can be around people who are always thinking up cool ideas, things you don’t know much about. You get to hang out with engineers and musicians on the same day. They’re always interested in each other one way or another. These are people who can tweak your mind and show you something that you didn’t know before. That’s something that’s exciting for me about being at a university.

You could say that being a dean is a way for me to live where I want to live. It’s definitely the environment that I’m happiest in.

P&Q: Over the next two years, where do you intend to focus? In the same spirit, what would success look like over that period? What would you need to achieve in order to fulfill your mission?

PR: There are a couple of things that we’re going to need to do well. Schools want to have impact on the things they care about. They want an impact on research, which means moving the field or, at the very least, that the key conversations that move your disciplines start at your schools or they travel through them in your faculty. Or, they want their program to be distinctive. They give great education to stronger people and you deliver positions to them; you give them the opportunity to lead or launch top organizations wherever they go.

To achieve that mission, we’re still a little underscale in my view. We need scale for impact is what I am trying to say. For us, scale isn’t all that much. We’re probably 20% smaller than we need to be. It is still a scale that will require some talent, thoughtfulness and some resources to achieve. In a couple of years, we’ll be where we ought to be if we add another section in the full-time section; if we are at a quality level that’s top 15 or higher in our students; and we have all of our programs running in a way where applications and placements are up and our financial model is robust. We’ll have to add everything, including tenure-track faculty, to make the scaling happen.  So growth is a good and motivating reason for a lot of organizations to change things and to try new things. We’ll have to make some changes quickly to coordinate all of that growth while we do it. If we can manage that, we’ll be in a great position for Rice. We will have achieved a lot not only for the university, but even for Houston in particular. We’ll add a lot of value to the commercial value environment here and the talent we draw in and retain in the city.

P&Q: As you near the end of your first year, what was the hardest part?

PR: The hardest thing to do was wait. Wait to get started. And wait to be definitive in what vision we would pursue. There is a real carefulness in the processes that work in academia. We’re so collaborative. We’re so reliant on each other. If people aren’t passionate the plan won’t work. We need them to believe in the job enough to give 100%

That type of buy in is slow. It’s challenging in a new environment. You don’t have a history with them. It’s hard to say, trust me on this.

Success is getting the organization to really mobilize and almost get out ahead of you because they see it so clearly. You can’t rush it all though.

P&Q: Any final things you’d like to say?

PR: For us, I think scale is important, but we’ll never be a large program like others. There is an interesting theme at the university. I think we are the second smallest school to play Division I sports. We’ve always had the idea that we would be research competitive with the top national universities and something closer to a liberal arts or Ivy League school in scale. Thematically, I think that’s where we want to go, but we have a lot that we can do at the school.

We’re looking at a lot of things.  We re-launched our Masters of Accountancy program last year, which had been dormant for 20 years. We’ll look at all the things that are contemporaries are looking at, such as dual degree and online programs. All of those are in play for us just like everyone else. But we’re going to keep the boundary on scale in a way that allows us to achieve growth and continue to keep the quality up. We definitely don’t want to scale back. These are hard things to execute. Everyone tries them. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds. We see the challenge and the school is hungry for it. That’s one of the reasons why I came.


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