After reviewing more than 400 candidates in a nearly year-long search, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business found its new leader in Canada. The school announced today (July 13) that Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, recently renewed for a second five-year term at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, will become the school’s tenth dean on Oct. 15.
Bajeux-Besnainou, 56, succeeds Robert Dammon, 63, one of the most successful deans in the school’s 71-year history. Among other things, Dammon helped to fund and build a new $201 million state-of-the-art building that has transformed the school and put it at the center of the university. He launched three new master’s programs, including a unique and highly ranked hybrid online MBA option as well as two specialty master’s program in business analytics and product management and reinforced the school’s positioning in management science. After a nine-year run as dean, Dammon will return to his role as a full-time Tepper faculty member in financial economics.
To earn the job, Bajeux-Besnainou went through a battery of more than 50 interviews in a search assisted by headhunters Heidrick & Struggles that led to the assessment of hundreds of both academic and industry candidates. She is the second woman to become dean at Carnegie Mellon’s business school since economist Elizabeth Bailey who led the business school from 1983 to 1990. Her appointment may signal a new trend in deanships, the recruitment of already experienced deans. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for example, hired the dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, while the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California has brought aboard the Wharton dean.
‘COMING TO THE COUNTRY OF OPPORTUNITY WAS OUR DREAM’
“Our search committee immediately recognized Isabelle’s collaborative nature and deep commitment to interdisciplinary education,” said Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Tepper who served as co-chair of a 17-member search committee. “She will galvanize our leadership position in business, technology and analytics while expanding experiential learning programs and entrepreneurship opportunities for students. We are extremely pleased to welcome her to Carnegie Mellon.”
For the French-born Bajeux-Besnainou, a mathematic-trained finance professor, the appointment fulfills an American Dream that began in the early 1990s when she and her husband, Jacques, a nuclear engineer, moved to the U.S. in pursuit of a life and careers with greater impact. “When we met in high school, we said we are going to have two kids, name them David and Sarah, and we are going to move to the U.S. in that order,” she explains in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Coming to the country of opportunity was our dream. We thought the U.S. would be an amazing country to have an amazing impact on the world. We were very lucky to be able to live up to that dream. This was our dream, and we accomplished that dream. I’m American, and I still believe that this is the country where things will happen in the future. And we now have three, children, David, Sarah, and Judith.”
She and her husband rented a compact SUV last week in Montreal for the nine-hour drive to Pittsburgh for preparations for today’s announcement, househunting, and a chance to visit their first grandchild in Washington, D.C. “It was a lovely drive but crossing the border was quite surreal,” she says. “There were only trucks at the border so we had lots of people taking care of us. I will be able to go back but have To stay in my house for two weeks before seeing anybody.”
MATH CAME NATURALLY TO HER: ‘I GUESS IT WAS THE EASY PATH’
When she returns to finish up her work at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Bajeux-Besnainou can take great pride in her accomplishments at the school over the past five years. She led the launch of several specialty master’s programs at McGill, including programs in retailing, finance and analytics, the launch of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management, a faculty recruitment initiative that resulted in the hiring of 49 full-time professors, and the $16 million renovations of a new home for McGill’s MBA and specialized masters programs.
Her second deanship at Tepper, whose full-time MBA program is ranked 17th best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants, caps an academic journey that began when she was an intellectually precocious young girl in a Northern suburb of Paris. While her parents were not academics, her father was a physical therapist while her mother ran a small clothing store, they strongly valued education. She worked weekends selling underwear and ties at her mom’s store but was encouraged to pursue her studies in a discipline that attracted few women.
“I always liked math,” Bajeux-Besnainou says. “It came naturally to me so I guess it was the easy path. It is also a prestigious path in France where there is a strong mathematical culture. “One of the good things in France is that you can go to very good schools even when you are not from an advantaged background. I am a product of public schools.” Her competency in math helped to win her acceptance in 1984 to Ecole Normale Supérieure, one of the most selective and prestigious graduate schools in Paris, France. Often the only woman in class, she would move on immediately after her undergraduate studies to earn a doctorate in math and its application to the world of finance at Université Paris Dauphine just five years later in 1989 at the age of 24. Her dissertation put her math skills to test in a paper on portfolio management performance.
‘I BECAME MORE INTERESTED IN WHAT WE ACADEMICS CALL THE DARK SIDE’
A self-described introvert, she spent four years as an assistant professor of finance at ESSEC Business School in Paris until 1993 when she moved to the U.S. to realize her dream. Bajeux-Besnainou took up residence in Lincoln Park, N.J., and began a teaching job at the University of Montreal while searching for a position in the U.S. She would find that job at George Washington University which she joined in 1994 as the only woman in the finance department. For the first 17 years at GW, she followed the typical route of an academic, churning out research papers published in academic journals and becoming a fully tenured professor of finance at the school. Then in 2011, she became chair of the finance department. A year later, she took over as associate dean for undergraduate programs, leading 110 full-time faculty members and some 1,600 students.
“Like a lot of academics,” she adds, “I was trying to evolve as I became more interested in what we academics call the dark side. But as I started doing it, I realized I really enjoyed it. So that was the start of a second type of career in roles that have a direct and different kind of impact on faculty, staff development, and students’ educational experiences.”
That pivot to the administrative side, assisted by her reading of Jim Collins’ Good To Great, led to her recruitment as the first woman to become dean of Desautels in September of 2015. It was a major career transition, moving out of the U.S. to lead a school with more than 3,000 students, 100 full-time professors, and a dozen academic programs. In addition to adding the three specialty master’s programs at McGill, she also created a certificate in health care management for resident physicians. Her strategic plan was built around four pillars: research excellence, a culture that is centered on students, community impact, and financial sustainability.