A Tribute To Kellogg’s Legendary Don Jacobs

The late Donald Jacobs, the most influential business school dean of his generation

Donald Jacobs, the most influential business school dean in this generation, passed away peacefully last night (Oct. 30) at the age of 90. Jacobs led Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to the very top of business education. For 26 years, he led the Kellogg School with tenacity, courage and foresight, making it one of the world’s premier players in graduate management education.

In the 1980s, Jacobs reinvented the modern business school and transformed MBA education. He took a second-tier institution and put it comfortably in the company of an entrenched elite–Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Dartmouth, Chicago, and Columbia. What he accomplished in his 26 years at the helm of the Kellogg is the stuff of legend. There have been B-school deans who have profoundly shaped their institutions, and there have been deans who have resurrected the reputations of once-proud schools that have lost their way. But Jacobs is the only dean to have had such a dramatic and profound impact on what MBAs are taught–even today–and to have carried a school from the second ranks to the very top of the business school elites.

In a statement to the Kellogg community, Dean Blount called Jacobs “a man of both high standards and great warmth. Don shaped the careers of generations of Kellogg faculty, staff and students. I have heard so many stories over the past seven years of how Don changed lives in deeply personal ways. For me, he has been both a mentor and friend. The bravery he modeled in the choices he made on behalf of Kellogg over his 26-year run has been a daily source of inspiration in my work as dean.”


For his successors in the job, Jacobs was a larger-than-life boss whose presence pervaded everything. Kellogg Dean Sally Blount has long described Jacobs as “the greatest business school dean of the late 20th century.” He was that and so much more. Yet, it would have been easy to underestimate him. The son of two Chicago bakers, he was as unassuming as the tell-it-like-it-is guy next to you in a blue collar bar ordering a Pabst Blue Ribbon. At first impression, the professor of banking came off as a highly affable character, with a ready smile, a sparkle in his eyes and a firm handshake. His deep intellect was not immediately apparent because he was so immediately approachable. Yet, in every way he was a giant in his field, the kind of person with relentless persuasive powers to get things done.

When it came to deaning, Jacobs had no peer. He was an astute trendsetter, a brilliant strategist, and a complete mench. Long before admissions interviews became popular, Jacobs was the first business school dean to interview all MBA applicants to assess the the more important attributes that were not discernible from a paper application or a test score. Long before teamwork and collaboration became not merely the norm but nearly a cliche, he created a mindset that has become the defacto standard around the world. And long before MBA students gained more say over their experiences, he encouraged a student-centered culture, understanding that co-curricular activities run and controlled by students were a profound learning opportunity. He also inherently knew the value of investing heavily in executive education to bring executives on campus and in contact with his academics and students.

When Poets&Quants last interviewed Jacobs in 2010 (see video below), he had sagely predicted what many observers see now: Declining applications to MBA programs and an inevitable shakeout in the industry. “We lived on easy street,” he said, recalling the post-war years of business education. “It was all milk and honey. We’ve had our pick of the best students and faculty. We were able to charge a hefty price for the degree. Not only did we pay our own costs, the universities found a goose to pluck, and they’ve plucked it. The costs went up dramatically and the returns to graduates went up dramatically. Until now, there has been a very good return on the degree. I think that is gone. Entering salaries, the entire return package (to graduating MBAs), is going down. For us to compete for the best students, we’re going to have to lower the price of the degree. Now the intelligent people will lower the stated coupon price by offering larger scholarships to the best students. But this will affect everyone.”


Jacobs then believed that the best schools would need more money to remain competitive for the best students, not only with each other, but with schools of law, medicine, and engineering. “Universities are going to have to give some of the endowments back to the business schools. A university is like a conglomerate,” he adds, revealing his roots as a finance prof. “A conglomerate has a depreciated number on its price over and above the breakup value. People say why is that? And the answer is very simple. If you are a conglomerate, you are always looking for the bad part of the firm to fix. If you’re going to fix it, where are you going to get the resources? From the good guys. So you are always taking from the really good ones and giving it to the bad ones. Universities are the same way. They take it from the great ones, the good schools, and they give it to the dogs. They are going to have to give up some of that. We are going to be less of a goose.”

It would be easy, so many years later, to wrongly assume that what we take for granted today simply evolved with no major influencer. But again and again, from the flagship MBA program to executive education offerings, Jacobs led the way. For many years, for example, corporate recruiters routinely complained about the paucity of soft skills in MBA graduates. When most fellow deans comfortably lived in the academic bubble, surround by arrogant professors who thought they knew better, Jacobs listened hard to those issues. He put extreme levels of teamwork into his MBA program so that much of the graduate work his MBAs did was not alone, but with others and often with team grades.

Just how novel this was became apparent during a gathering of deans at Case Western Reserve University in the early 1990s. After describing the profound level of collaboration among students at Kellogg, a rival dean on the panel, MIT Sloan School of Management Dean Lester Thurow, turned to Jacobs and said matter-of-factly: “At our school, we consider that cheating.” That was the illogical mindset of many deans and senior faculty members at that time.


And when he devoted substantial resources to interview every MBA candidate who applied to Kellogg, he smartly used this opportunity to evaluate the professional presence, articulateness and employability of each would-be student. Jacobs was collecting data to make smarter admission decisions that could not have been made by a transcript, a test score and an essay. What made this strategic change so brilliant is that when the interviewer could see that the candidate was an ideal fit with Kellogg’s culture, the interview itself became a sell opportunity to steal the applicant away from Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.

When Jacobs rolled the dice and spent millions to build a hotel on Lake Michigan in the 1970s for executive education participants he didn’t quite have, some warned that it would be his big white elephant. In fact, it was a huge success and for years provided funding that enabled the school to be far less dependent on major fundraising campaigns. More than that, however, it closely aligned the school with the chieftains of Chicago’s most important and influential corporations. That helped to make Kellogg the more pragmatic business school in the Chicago metro area, the place where the city’s movers and shakers routinely came vs. the more theoretical approach of the University of Chicago. And once they came to Evanston and Jacobs’ world, he would use the occasion to get them to lecture in classrooms as well as mentor and hire his students.

Not surprisingly, he also helped to shape the school’s stellar reputation in marketing, convincing the professor who would become one of the most prominent academics in the field to apply his background in economics to marketing.  “Don Jacobs was an outstanding and creative dean of the Kellogg School of Management,” said Philip Kotler, professor of international marketing at Kellogg. “I knew Don for 50 plus years and I marveled at his intuitive genius. It was Don who convinced me to teach marketing rather than economics. His idea was that marketing needed a PhD economist from Chicago and MIT to raise marketing’s impact. We all will deeply miss Don.”

Whatever he did at Kellogg, he was all in. He made every student, faculty member and staffer part of his extended family. Every Thanksgiving Day, he would come to the school to personally serve a Thanksgiving Day dinner to students who couldn’t go home. “Don took to speaking of the school’s faculty and staff as family,” recalled long-time Kellogg Professor Gene Lavengood at Jacobs’ retirement dinner in 2001. “He called us other things too, but his favorite reference was to family. He wanted to think of us as bound together, not only in a common enterprise, but in a kind of kinship that presumes mutual care. He created a community that regards itself and everyone in it with true affection.”

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