When Alison Davis-Blake stepped down from the deanship at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, she expressed the desire to focus her efforts on what she called “the broader problems and opportunities facing universities.”
Today, she got her chance to do just that, landing the job as president of Bentley University. Davis-Blake, 59, will assume the post on July 1, exactly two years after leaving the Ross deanship after a single five-year term. She is the second prominent business school dean to take on a university presidency. Only last week, UCLA Anderson School of Management Dean Judy Olian announced that she would become president of Quinnipiac University at the end of the current academic year (see UCLA Dean To Leave For Top University Job).
Davis-Blake’s next act puts her in charge of a private university in Waltham, Mass., with some 4,200 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students. She brings to it a formidable resume of administrative work, including a five-year stint as dean of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management from 2006 to 2011 and three years as a senior associate dean for academic affairs at the business school at the University of Texas from 2003 until 2006. She was the first female dean at both Carlson and Ross.
SUCCEEDS GLORIA CORDES LARSON WHO WILL LEAVE BENTLEY AFTER MORE THAN A DECADE AS PRESIDENT
At Bentley, Davis-Blake will succeed Gloria Cordes Larson who is leaving the job after more than a decade of service during which she launched the school’s MBA and added nine new majors to the curriculum. When Larson announced she was stepping down in June of last year, she noted that areas of improvement at Bentley include undergraduate student life, graduate programs and research, “international strategy,” technology improvements, and campus diversity.
In common with many other private colleges in the U.S., Bentley is facing similar pressures to find a more sustainable economic model and recruit students in a highly competitive market. In fiscal 2015, the last year for which data is publicly available, the university reported revenues of $287.7 million, just $9.0 million more than its expenses. A year earlier, Bentley’s net revenue after expenses was more than twice as much at $18.7 million.
Davis-Blake won the job after a national search that attracted numerous candidates. “We considered an impressive group of people and Dr. Davis-Blake was the head-and-shoulders standout candidate,” said Robert P. Badavas, vice chairman of Bentley’s Board of Trustees and the head of the search committee. “She is the right leader at the right time for Bentley.”
‘A BENTLEY EDUCATION IS EXACTLY WHAT THE COUNTRY IS ASKING OF HIGHER ED’
She will assume a job that paid Larson total compensation of $740,500 in fiscal 2015, including a base salary of $504,600, plus a $132,500 bonus as well as retirement contributions and other deferred compensation.
In a prepared statement, Davis-Blake said she is looking forward to her new role. ”Bentley is a university on the rise, with impressive enrollment growth, an educational experience that is both well-rounded and relevant to today’s workplace, and a stunning track record of career placements for graduates,” said Davis-Blake. “Bentley’s core business curriculum combined with an emphasis on the arts and sciences differentiates it from business schools around the country. A Bentley education is exactly what the country is asking of higher education today, and I couldn’t be more excited to join the university and continue that momentum.”
The academic, who earned her PhD in organizational behavoir at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 1986, seemed destined for university life. Her father, Gordon Davis, who taught at Minnesota’s Carlson School for 44 years until retiring in 2004, was regarded as a pioneer in the field of management information systems. Her mother, LaNay Davis, earned both an MS in social work and a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota.
WHEN SHE TOOK OVER ROSS, THE SCHOOL WAS IN THE RED
Davis-Blake earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in organizational behavior from Brigham Young University before heading to Stanford for her PhD. Her first job out to Stanford was at Carnegie Mellon University’s business school until moving to Texas in 1990.
As dean of the Carlson School of Management, Davis-Blake led the first redesign of the school’s undergraduate curriculum in 20 years, implemented new teaching and research collaborations with the Law School, College of Science and Engineering, School of Public Affairs, and College of Design, and balanced the school’s budget each year by identifying new revenue sources and controlling expenses even as state funding allocated to the business school declined from 20% to 6%.
She took over the deanship of Ross at a difficult time. The school was in the red, largely a result of the then still lingering impact of the Great Recession which forced two of the big three U.S. automakers in Detroit into bankruptcy. The economic mess particularly wrecked havoc with Ross’ executive education business, which insiders say, saw revenues plunge from roughly $30 million annually to close to a low of $11 million. Because Ross’ exec ed profits go entirely to the school, the collapse of those offerings plunged the entire institution into a deficit. In her memo, Davis-Blake said her team has restored the school to a “healthy financial position” after a 70% increase in executive education revenue and a return to the school of nearly $3 million this year.
RUFFLING FEATHERS AT MICHIGAN ROSS
She was clearly a change agent and a controversial one. Her supporters portrayed her as a courageous leader for taking on long-standing inequities at the school and reversing the school’s dismal financials. She tied faculty pay increases to performance and raised significant money for the school. The result: Davis-Blake turned a $40 million deficit in the school’s budget into $13 million in reserves. More people applied to Ross’ full-time MBA program for the fall of 2015 than ever before, and the undergraduate business program continues to thrive with nearly 1,500 students.
Her detractors, on the other hand, allege that she was a dean who could be petty, if not vindictive, keen on settling scores, and playing favorites. They claim she was a divisive leader who gained poor grades from faculty for her leadership. On a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 reflecting the best possible performance, Davis-Blake received a grade of 2.5 for the 2014-2015 academic year from faculty for their confidence in her leadership. Only four of 18 deans on the Ann Arbor campus received lower scores. The Ross faculty also gave Davis-Blake a shockingly low score of 2.1 on her ability to promote a “collegial environment” at the business school. Only one other dean scored lower on this measure in 2014-2015 (see At Michigan’s Ross School, Departing Dean Gets Poor Grades From Faculty).
During her stint as dean, Ross’ full-time MBA program has had something of a roller coaster ride. The school’s acceptance rate for its full-time program in 2012 hit a record high 40.6%—well above any other prestige public university business school. The spike was caused when the school shut down its co-signer loan program for international students. Ross admitted more candidates to offset the expected decline in offers from admits who decided not to go to Michigan because of the loan issue. The school has since recovered, getting its acceptance rate back to more historical levels at 25% for the latest entering class with record median GMAT scores of 720.
PRAISES BENTLEY’S ‘FUSION APPROACH TO THE CURRICULUM’
The Bentley announcement credits her with leading a series of curricular and co-curricular innovations at Ross including state-of-the-art learning opportunities that improved the student experience, increasing applications by 32%, quadrupling the number of undergraduates who study abroad, expanding the school’s footprint with a new Executive MBA program in Los Angeles, and raising more than $300 million as part of the university’s capital campaign, increasing annual giving by 37%. Oddly, it fails to mention her single biggest accomplishment: Getting the school solidly into the black.
In a Q&A published on Bentley’s website, Davis-Blake said she has been particularly impressed by what she called the university’s “fusion approach to the curriculum.” She said it answers a long-standing and increasingly important issue in the labor market. “CEOs are increasingly calling for college grads who are broadly trained in arts and sciences,” she said. “Yet, at the same time, recruiters necessarily require specific skills for first jobs. The solution to this is integrating arts and sciences education with business education in a deep and meaningful way, which can be difficult because that has not been the typical practice at most universities. Bentley values that deep integration and has many years of experience implementing it.”