Less than six months after opening the doors to a brand new home for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Dean Sally Blount today (Sept. 7) announced that she will step down at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year.
The surprise decision, coming in her seventh year as dean, was apparently made in July in Rhode Island at one of Blount’s silent retreats, a multi-day period of quiet reflection that she has taken for the past decade. The 56-year-old Blount intends to take a one-year sabbatical to travel, write and ponder her “final chapters in education.”
The first and only woman to lead one of the famed M7 business schools, Blount has clearly made her mark on the school where she once arrived as a young graduate student in organizational behavior some 29 years ago. Only last month, she successfully completed Kellogg’s first-ever major capital campaign, raising $365 million, including a doubling of contributions to the school’s annual fund which exceeded $10 million for the first time. She was directly involved in every significant detail of Kellogg’s new $250 million Global Hub on Lake Michigan which officially opened in mid-March.
‘TAKING A CHANCE ON A PREGNANT DOCTORAL STUDENT’
The school just welcomed one of its most talented incoming classes of MBAs ever, with the highest average GMAT score ever recorded at the school: 732, up four points over last year and the highest average of any of the world’s most prominent MBA programs with the sole exception of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The latest increase, moreover, is after a 20-point rise in the average over the previous five years from 708 in 2012.
Even without taking these latest improvements into account, Blount led Kellogg to a fourth-place finish last year on Poets&Quants’ composite ranking, in a tie with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and only narrowly behind the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Stanford, and Harvard Business School. That No. 4 rank is up from seventh place in 2010, largely on the strength of significantly improved rankings from the Financial Times (to 8th from 11th among U.S. schools), The Economist (to 2nd from 11th among U.S. schools), and Forbes (to 3rd from 8th).
In a video message to the Kellogg community (see below), Blount appears misty eyed at times as she reflects on her academic career and the opportunity Northwestern gave her to lead Kellogg as dean. “We’ve insured Kellogg’s place on the global shortlist of premier business schools,” she says. “Our faculty and staff are among the world’s best. And I still pinch myself every time I walk in the Global Hub, our new home. We have done amazing work together. I am so excited about Kellogg’s next chapter. But I am also aware that this opportunity marks a rare opportunity in my own life…. I am grateful for the amazing opportunities that I have had these past 30 years because Kellogg took a chance on a pregnant doctoral student.”
NEXT SUMMER MARKS THE 30TH YEAR SINCE SHE FIRST CAME TO KELLOGG
Only months ago, in March, Bount was remarking on how the school’s board of trustees had challenged her to think about how Kellogg could now build on its new stunning lakefront home. The board asked her to pretend she was a new dean who had just walked into the new building. Her challenge: What would she do next? At the time, she seemed energized by the task. But during her annual summer sojourn of solitude, a time when she disconnects from the world to be alone with her thoughts, Blount came to her decision to leave the deanship.
She realized that next summer would mark the 30th year since she came to Kellogg’s Evanston, Ill., campus as a young graduate student and a soon-to-be mother of the first of three children. Blount says the moment offered a “rare opportunity in her own life” to think about what should come next.
Over the years, she has made other meaningful life decisions in quiet reflection. Before returning to Kellogg as dean, she had been dean of New York University’s undergraduate business program at the Stern School of Business. It was after a weeklong solitary hike in the Arizona desert that she decided not to toss her name in for Stern’s top dean position, a judgment that ultimately led to the appointment at Kellogg a year later.
‘THIS IS WHAT THE PERSON I WANT TO BECOME WOULD DO’
“While on retreat in July, I realized that this inflection point creates an opportunity for me to start thinking bravely about my own life in the ways that i have about the institutions i have led,” Blount says. “I have long dreamed of taking a sabbatical year to travel, to write, and I want to spend some time thinking about my own final chapter in education as the pace of transformation accelerates in our workplace. As my daughter once said to me long ago, ‘This is what the person I want to become would do.’”
With Blount’s forthcoming departure, there will now be only three female deans of Top 25 U.S. business schools: Judy Olian at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Erika James at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and Idalene F. Kesner of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. None of the Top 20 business schools outside the U.S. has a woman as its top leader.
Blount was initially a reluctant candidate for the deanship at Kellogg. Even after agreeing to meet with the search committee in the Admirals Club at O’Hare International Airport in December of 2009, she was unsure she wanted the job. Kellogg had just come off a failed fundraising campaign, torpedoed in part by the Great Recession. The school’s facilities were badly in need of a refresh. Rival schools had caught on to Kellogg’s differentiation in the market—its pioneering collaboration and teamwork culture—and the school was waiting for a leader who could re-energize the place.
‘LAND AS BIG AND GOLD AN OPPORTUNITY AS YOU CAN FIND’
The daughter of a Bell Labs physicist, Blount spent her early years in New Jersey, earning her undergraduate degree with high honors in engineering systems and economic policy and from Princeton University in 1983. She then made what turned out to be a pivotal choice with her first job. She joined the Boston Consulting Group’s Chicago office as an associate consultant. Blount would later counsel young women to do the same, to go into the most challenging and demanding jobs in business straight out of college, jobs that are more likely to be pursued by their male peers.
“I would argue that the first job is not the time to focus on comfort, balance or even mission,” she has said. “That can and should come later. The first job is the time in their lives for these women to gain credentials, take risks, travel, and land as big and bold an opportunity as they can find (see A Dean’s Career Advice To Young Women).
After a two-year stint at BCG, Blount joined an interior architecture firm as director of finance and planning, until going to Kellogg in 1988 for both her MS and PhD in organizational behavior, specializing in the behavioral psychology of decision making and negotiations.