Dean Of The Year: Jeffrey Brown Of Gies College Of Business

Jeffrey R. Brown is Poets&Quants Dean of the Year for 2021

Just about every business school dean will tell you how the world of higher education is in the midst of dramatic change. They will gladly opine on the disruptive impact of technology and how new non-academic players pose a threat to their existing business models.

But there is one dean in particular who is not merely talking about it; he’s boldly and courageously acting on those emerging changes with big results. His vision for the future of business education would require a business school to act more like a startup than an appendage to a university. 

It would upend virtually every aspect of the college experience from admissions and academic credits to tuition payments and lifelong learning. It would call for partnering with new competitors like Google and LinkedIn. It would demand massive investments in new technologies from using artificial intelligence to grade at scale or to automatically convert existing lectures in English to Mandarin or other languages for use all over the world.


It is a future that few deans would dare to embrace, never mind create. But for Jeffrey Brown, the dean of Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, that future is here and now. Instead of waiting for it to disrupt Gies, he is leading the disruption to higher education by reinventing the way learning is delivered. 

“For 800 years,” he says, “the primary product that universities have sold is a degree. For most of those 800 years, we’ve had a sequential model to pursue a career. That model is not going to work for the next 800 years or the next eight years. We are in an age of acceleration from fast speed Internet to artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

“The skills that people need to stay relevant in their careers are depreciating rapidly,” adds Brown. “We are moving from a sequential model to a braided river where education and work need to be woven together. If a college only has degrees, it is going to write the story of its own irrelevance. We need to have bundles of high quality, relevant content for students when they need it, while they are working and living their lives.”


It’s the kind of talk that you would expect from an Elon Musk, not the business school dean of a Big Ten public university. But Brown is pushing the edges of what can be done, making massive investments in that future at a scale that is both visionary and breathtaking. From bringing in one of the largest gifts to a business school, a $150 million pledge from alumnus Larry Gies, to building the fastest growing MBA program on the planet, the school’s disruptively priced $22,500 iMBA with a current enrollment of more than 4,300 students, Brown and his handpicked team have remade nearly every aspect of the school.

More than any single accomplishment, however, Brown’s most notable impact centers on the environment of experimentation he has cultivated within the school. “Jeff introduced a culture of boldness that has given us the freedom to think big within our own scopes of influence,” says Kevin Jackson, the associate dean of undergraduate affairs. “That culture puts our minds to work thinking about what could we do. It frees us from the constraints of having to fit into some box.”

The innovation fueled by those cultural changes, moreover, has been in the service of the university’s original land grant mission. “He is all about democratizing education and creating access for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access,” says Gies, founder and CEO of Madison Industries, one of the largest private equity firms. “Right when I met Jeff, I knew we had someone who would truly change education. He is an open-minded human being and a true servant leader. He has built an incredible team of people who are truly aligned with the mission. He helps connect the dots. He just doesn’t talk about it. He helps them know what is important every day.” 


For his fearless and decisive leadership and for smartly positioning the Gies College of Business to boldly go where no other business school has gone, Poets&Quants has named Brown the Dean of the Year. The 53-year-old economist is the 11th dean to earn this honor, joining a stellar cast of academic talent over the years that has included the leaders of Harvard Business School, the Yale School of Management, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and IE Business School in Spain.

Brown’s deanship, like so many, could not have been predicted. He just as easily could have been a public policy wonk or even a brand management guru. After earning his undergraduate degree in economics from Miami University in 1990, he went off to Procter & Gamble as a brand manager on the Scope mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub accounts. Little more than three years at P&G, he returned to school in Boston at Harvard University’s Kennedy School to get a master’s in public policy. Brown followed that up with a PhD in economics from MIT, only to return to the Kennedy School in 1999 as an assistant professor.

In the Bush administration, he served as a senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2001 and 2002. Brown also did a two-year stint as a member of the Social Security Advisory Board. And he has been a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research as well as an associate director of the group’s Retirement Research Center.

He joined the University of Illinois as a finance professor in 2002, resisted an offer from the Wharton School to join its faculty, and ultimately helped to create the business college’s Center for Business and Public Policy. In 2015, when the deanship came open, Brown decided to toss his hat in the ring. He was not the most obvious candidate. He had never served as an associate dean or the head of a department, bringing little to no administrative experience to his candidacy.

Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown joins a stellar roster of Dean of the Year honorees who include IE Business School’s Santiago Iñiguez (top left), Indiana University Kelley School of Business’ Idie Kesner, Yale’s ‘Ted’ Snyder, UVA Darden’s Scott Beardsley, Kellogg’s Sally Blount, Harvard’s Nitin Nohria, Foster School of Business’ Jim Jiambalvo, Dartmouth Tuck’s Paul Danos, Toronto Rotman’s Roger Martin, and Beardsley’s predecessor at Darden, Robert Bruner.

Dean Year School University
Jeffrey Brown 2021 Gies College of Business University of Illinois
Scott Beardsley 2020 Darden School of Business University of Virginia
Idie Kesner 2019 Kelley School of Business Indiana University
Jim Jiambalvo 2018 Foster School of Business University of Washington
Sally Blount 2017 Kellogg School of Management Northwestern University
Santiago Iñiguez 2016 IE Business School IE University/td>
Edward ‘Ted’ Snyder 2015 Yale School of Management Yale University
Paul Danos 2014 Tuck School of Business Dartmouth College
Roger Martin 2013 Rotman School of Management University of Toronto
Nitin Nohria 2012 Harvard Business School Harvard University
Robert Bruner 2011 Darden School of Business University of Virginia

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