A Tribute To Kellogg’s Legendary Don Jacobs

Former Kellogg Dean Don Jacobs greets Sally Blount, who formerly headed up NYU’s undergraduate business school and is now dean of Kellogg.

AN ACADEMIC JOURNEY THAT BEGAN JUST AFTER THE END OF WWII

Jacobs began his academic journey after the end of World War II. Trained as an economist, he earned a bachelor’s degree in the field from Roosevelt University in 1949, and then a masters and PhD in economics from Columbia University in 1951 and 1956, respectively. He joined the Kellogg faculty a year later in 1957, becoming director of the school’s Banking Research Center in 1960. When he was named dean in 1975, after a six-year stint as chairman of Kellogg’s finance department, the goose he inherited was hardly golden.

The boom in management education was yet to occur, and Kellogg was hardly considered an A-player in the game. Jacobs even lacked the money to upgrade the faculty with first-class professors. Instead, he had to place his bets on newly minted Phds with upside potential. “Don was fearlessly entrepreneurial when it came to advancing the reputation and quality of the school,” recalled Stephen Burnett, a professor of strategic management and associate dean of executive education. “If there was a person or initiative that would help Kellogg, Don would let nothing stand in his way, especially convention or university bureaucracy.”

That was especially true when he decided, amidst much doubt and skepticism, to build on campus an executive education facility, the Allen Center, in the late 1970s.

At that time, the school did not have a fraction of the executive offerings required to fill a building with 64 bedrooms and three-plus classrooms 365 days per year. The university president at the time was convinced the Allen Center would fail and that he would soon have a brand new dorm. “Don’s notion was that if you don’t build it, they certainly will not come,” recalls Burnett. “A big expensive empty building is a wonderful incentive for innovation in executive education, and this is precisely what we did.” By the early to mid-1980s, Kellogg was designing and delivering extremely large custom programs for executives at some of the world’s best known companies, including Goodyear, General Motors, Zurich Insurance, Beatrice Foods, Ernst & Young, British Petroleum, and Spiegel.

JACOBS CREATED THE FIRST KELLOGG COMMENCEMENT AT THE SUGGESTION OF A STUDENT

Adds Burnett: “This was a full decade before other schools even knew what a custom program was, much less had serious experience at how to design and run one. From Don’s perspective, by doing custom programs we were exposing senior-level executives of major organizations to the excellence of Kellogg while simultaneously developing faculty by giving them deep insights into these organizations. The fact that other schools would not do them just meant that we had no competition.”

At the very first Kellogg commencement in 1979–which occurred because of a student suggestion–Jacobs told his graduates he would see them at the Allen Center. “You think you’re only going to come back here just for reunions, but you’re wrong,” he said. “You’re coming back and you’re going to pay me tuition because we’re going to sell you another product. Five, ten, fifteen years later, your knowledge is going to be out of date. You’ve got to come back.”

To this day, Kellogg has one of the most successful executive education business in the world. “Under his leadership, the business school became a business as well as a school, less isolated in academia and more customer-oriented,” says Stuart Greenbaum, who worked closely Jacobs as an associate dean and who later became dean of Washington University’s Olin School. “Don transformed the academic environment from one where faculty members only spoke to each other, into one where professors speak to business. This was a revolutionary idea back in the 1970s.”

BECOMING A VEGETARIAN AFTER HEART SURGERY

As an academician who practiced what he preached, Jacobs has served on as many as 25 corporate board over the years, from Commonwealth Edison, now Exelon, to First Chicago, now part of JPMorgan. But the board seat that arguably had the biggest personal impact on his life was Swift & Company, the giant meat packing concern.

It was while serving on Swift’s board that Jacobs, who has had open heart surgery, became a vegetarian. After learning more about the industry, he called the chief executive of Swift aside with a startling conclusion: “I said to the CEO, ‘We’ve got to sell this company.’ He said, ‘Why?” I said, ‘Because the man is going down. I couldn’t imagine people continuing to eat meat. We sold the company and everybody made a lot of money. Now the CEO and I teach an experiential course together on Business Dilemmas.”

He used the Allen Center and his board contacts to help the school. Just as crucial, however, Jacobs believed that the soft skills, such as leadership and teamwork, collaboration and culture, innovation and creativity, were just as important as the traditional hard skills, such as accounting, finance, statistics, and operations. He saw the chance to transform the typical b-school education by putting team exercises into almost every single class in the curriculum. This was so unusual at the time that at an academic conference devoted to graduate business education in the 1980s, a rival dean was nearly aghast when Jacobs explained that Kellogg students do the majority of their work in teams. “At our school,” the dean shot back, “we call that cheating.”

THEY KELLOGG WAY LEADS THE SCHOOL’S MBA PROGRAM TO A NUMBER ONE RANKING

Jacobs, however, would have the last laugh. In 1988, when BusinessWeek released the first regularly published rankings of business schools, Kellogg came out on top, a position it would hold for the next six years. Corporate recruiters loved the school’s graduates and how well they worked with others. Kellogg MBAs weren’t smug or arrogant, they didn’t expect to be CEOs within five years, and they didn’t demand nearly as much compensation as the graduates of Harvard, Stanford, or Chicago.

Kellogg MBAs, in turn, loved the school. Jacobs was a highly visible, hands-on leader at a time when many MBAs at top schools only saw the dean for first-year orientation and commencement. His door was always open. He empowered students to begin and run all kinds of initiatives and programs.

“Kellogg established a reputation as a school where students felt they had a real voice in how things were done,” recalls Ray Boyer, one of Kellogg’s senior staff members at the time. “It didn’t come about by accident. When students would go to Don with an idea for how to improve the school, he would typically say something to the effect of: ‘That is a terrific idea. Tell me how to do it.’ Some of Kellogg’s first international connections for students came about this way, leading to an array of international programs.”

SERVING A THANKSGIVING DAY MEAL TO THOSE WHO COULDN’T GET HOME

Shockingly, Jacobs even came to school every Thanksgiving Day to serve students–who didn’t return home for the holiday–a celebratory turkey dinner, personally dishing out mash potatoes and meat on plates. He knew full well what it was like to be away from family: he and his wife, Dinah, had a commuter marriage for some 24 years. She lived in New York, working as corporate director of consumer affairs for Citibank, while he worked in Evanston. Instead, Dinah often came back to Evanston to spend Saturdays and Sundays with her workaholic husband, or sometimes, they would arrange their travel schedules to collide so they could meet in cities all over the world. Recalls Jacobs: “One time the chairman of Unilever had a party for us and said it was the most wonderful relationship he ever heard of. Both of us could work long hours during the week and then meet in Cleveland on the weekends. It didn’t really work out that way.”

In 1988, e-mail and the Internet were in their infancy. So the news that Kellogg was number one reached the school via fax. Staffers remember waiting as the fax machine cranked out the flimsy paper achingly slow. “I clearly remember how the headline and the first paragraphs of the story came into view and how our celebration started before the paper was halfway out of the machine,” remembers Boyer. “After all, it was BusinessWeek magazine saying, essentially: ‘We’ve searched for the best MBA program. We found it at the Kellogg School.’

“I took the first page of the story down the hall to Don Jacob’s office. He was on the phone. I caught his attention and signaled number one. He gave a big grin and a thumbs-up. He went back to his phone call. And that was it.”

‘WE’VE GOT THE FORMULA, WE JUST HAVE TO KEEP DOING IT BETTER’

Jacobs soon held a town hall meeting. The place was packed with celebrating students, faculty and staff. Jacobs remembers it well. “They said, ‘Okay, what are you going to do now? I looked down and said, ‘What are you crazy? The fact of the matter is, we’ve got the formula. We know what we’re doing. We just have to keep doing it better. The only thing is to stay ahead and let everyone else try to catch us. If we stop running, then we are in deep trouble. I don’t think this place has the will to stop running, and I’m very pleased about the new dean.” Blount, who had been dean of New York University’s undergraduate business school, assumed the new role in July of 2010.

When all was said and done, Jacobs believes that interviewing all the applicants to the Kellogg School was the key to breaking into the top ranks. Why? Because in those years there were widespread complaints from companies about the inability of MBAs to work well with others. No one doubted the technical abilities of MBAs to crunch numbers, analyze competitors, or plot strategy. But it was widely believed that the interpersonnal skills so necessary for success in business were lacking. Assessing those skills with face-to-face interviews allowed Kellogg to sort out candidates who were far more likely to work well with others, who were highly articulate, and who didn’t have a chip on their shoulder. It addressed the dirty little secret of MBA education: that student selection, more than faculty or curriculum, accounts for the ultimate quality and reputation of any school.

Yet, interviewing all the applicants, gave Kellogg an ever larger advantage. “That interview ended up being the smartest thing I ever did,” says Jacobs. “We did it because we wanted a certain type of person for our program. But on the other hand, at the time, if you got admitted to Kellogg and to Chicago, you went to Chicago. If you got admitted to Kellogg and Columbia, you went to Columbia. We weren’t getting the best of the bunch. We figured that if we interviewed them, we would get some, maybe 10% to 15%, who would have gone elsewhere. What I didn’t understand,” says Jacobs, “is that we would get a lot more than that 15%.

A STORY: JACOBS STYLE

“Let me tell you a story,” he continues. “My wife, Dinah, started taking tennis lessons and one of her fellow students was a woman in our MBA program. She was orginally from West Virginia and she had been working for Campbell Soup as an auditor, traveling around the world. She was a real sweetheart, and we became friendly with her. She met a guy and they became friends and she was suddenly thinking about marriage. But he was going to go to Wharton for graduate school, so she decided to apply there and to Kellogg as well. Six weeks after we got her application, she got a phone call from us. ‘I’m from Kellogg,’ he said, ‘and I have been asked to interview you.’

On that very day, she got her acceptance to Wharton. So she said, ‘Look, I’m already in Wharton. I’m not interested.’ He said, ‘Please, you’ve got to let me interview you because if you don’t, they’ll think I really screwed it up. She agrees, reluctantly, and told us that in the first 15 minutes, she was only mildly interested in what she heard. During the second 15 minutes, she’s thinking this is interesting. In the third 15 minutes, she thinks there is something to it. By the time an hour passed, she said, ‘I was on my way to Evanston.‘ What i realized then is that we were putting salesmen in front of people. We were not up 15%. We were way up.”

For years, Kellogg was able to pick up highly talented candidates who most likely would have been sitting in the classrooms of rival schools. Yet, even when he told other deans about the benefits of his strategy, they rarely altered course. Jacobs remembers frequent discussions with John H. McArthur, dean of Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995. The two had first met in 1960 when Jacobs was in a year-long program studying math through Harvard and MIT. His roomate was Larry Fouraker, who also ended up as a Harvard dean, and their next door neighbor was McArthur.

“I kept telling John you’ve got to interview. And he kept sayng no, no, no. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“‘John,’” I said, “‘you’re not getting this. If you give me the face cards of your applicants, I’ll give them to my admissions people and we’ll get 15% of them to turn Harvard down. Why wouldn’t you do it?’

“‘It’s too expensive,’ he said.

‘’What do you mean it’s too expensive?’” I asked.

‘These people are all over the world. We couldn’t possibly do send our staff all over the place to do that.’

“‘John,’’ Jacobs patiently explained, “‘We don’t have our staff do these interviews. We let our alumni do that.’”

“‘Are you crazy?’” asked McArthur. “‘You trust them?’”

“If I don’t trust my alumni, I better get out of this business.”

“John finally had Harvard interview candidates, but only those who were accepted,” laughs Jacobs. “He never really got it. I told him to give me your face cards and i will give it to our admissions people and we’ll get 15% of them to turn Harvard down. He wouldn’t believe it.”

Today, of course, Harvard still doesn’t interview all of its applicants, but it won’t accept anyone who is not invited to an interview.

So after all these years, what does he think of accusations by some critics that MBAs were largely responsible for the global economic collapse. At the height of media silliness, The Economist dubbed MBAs “resilient wreckers,” claiming that “business schools have been widely accused of fashioning the wrecking balls and training many of the demolition crews that have wrecked such havoc in the economy over the past two years.” Jacobs pooh-poohs the notion, even laughs it away. “We are all silly people,” he says, “but I don’t think we got that silly. The fact is that we all have some blame. We allowed a structure to continue when most of us understood it was a bad structure. Everybody understood that these (exotic debt) instruments were getting very complicated. They knew the rating agencies had now become very important because nobody read the fine print in the instrument. Bad people figured out how to make everything get an A rating and the sellers were paying the rating agencies to grade it. It was crazy.”

To think his students, his alums, helped to cause a global financial crisis strikes Jacobs as an insane thought. “Our students,” he says, “are a delight to be with. They are smart. They are hard-working, and they are hard-playing. They are very nice and good people.”

Indeed, the man was by all accounts highly enjoyable company. He enjoyed cigars and brandy. He would bring colleagues to a sauna to sweat away an afternoon. For many years, he lived a modern life, with himself based in Evanston, completely devoted to the school, and his wife in New York, with a high powered job in banking. They would commute to each other every weekend.

A SCHOLAR IN BANKING AND FINANCE

“Don was a pioneer who reinvented American business education through his leadership of Kellogg,” wrote Blount in her message to Kellogg stakeholders. “Through the innovations he led at Kellogg and the faculty and students he recruited, he grew Kellogg’s national standing in the 1980s and brought us to international prominence in the 1990s when he initiated our international joint executive MBA degree programs.

“In the process, Don helped to define the U.S. business education model of the late 20th century that focused on teamwork and international outreach. He was also personally responsible for imparting modern business education models into key economies around the world through influential partnerships.”

Much later, at the age of 83 in 2010, he was still teaching four different courses to MBAs, including Global Initiatives in Management, which includes two weeks in the region with students doing field study, and Managing Risk, along with a corporate governance course he was then teaching at Kellogg’s Hong Kong Executive MBA program.

When he retired from the deanship in July of 2001, nearly 700 faculty, staff and students, as well as dozens of corporate leaders, CEOs and educators, came to a dinner to honor him from as far away as Japan, France, Germany, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

He will be sorely missed.

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