Minnesota Carlson Dean Stepping Down

After an 11-year run as dean of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Sri Zaheer will return to the faculty

After an 11-year stint as dean of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Sri Zaheer today (March 8) announced plans to step down from the job and return to the faculty. Highly regarded in the Twin Cities, she continues to chair the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, having served as a director there since 2017.

One of the most prominent Indian-born academics to assume the leadership of a major U.S. business school, Zaheer will stay on in the job until the university finds her successor. 

After nine months as interim dean and nearing a decade-long run as permanent dean, the 68-year-old Zaheer says she had begun discussions with the university provost about her departure as dean for the past year. She intends to return to teaching and research at Carlson in her area of expertise, international business. “I am not the professional dean who hops from one to another,” Zaheer says in an interview with Poets&Quants.

Minnesota Carlson Is In ‘A Very Strong Position’

Her career spans service in business, journalism and academia and is nothing less than the quintessential success story for a highly educated immigrant from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Zaheer met her husband, Aks Zaheer, now a professor of strategic management at Carlson, on stage in a play in their first year at business school while earning their MBAs from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. After working as a systems analyst at Tata Consultancy Services and an internal auditor at Sandoz India, she took the unusual step into journalism. For a five-year period, beginning in 1981 when she moved to Nigeria, she reported and wrote as a correspondent in Africa and India for Business International.  

It was during her time in Nigeria that she caught the bug to teach when she began lecturing as a part-time instructor at a state university in the country. She ultimately moved to Boston to earn her PhD from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined Carlson as a teaching specialist nearly 31 years ago in 1991. After serving as interim dean with the departure of Alison Davis-Blake to Michigan Ross in 2011, Zaheer was formally appointed dean exactly ten years ago today on March 8th of 2012.

Only the second woman to serve as Carlson Dean, Zaheer raised more than $200 million for the school, more than doubled the Carlson School’s endowment to over $305 million from $137 million. Under her leadership, the school brought in more than $106 million for scholarships alone, and roughly $50 million of endowment can be funneled into projects of the dean’s choosing.  She led a major update to Carlson’s undergraduate curriculum which debuts this fall, and nearly doubled the number of degree programs to 13 from seven with new master’s in business analytics, supply chain management, finance, and marketing. She also led the launch of a successful online MBA program.

With a total of 5,012 students, enrollment is the highest in school history. Most of that growth occurred at the undergraduate level and from the launch of the new specialty master’s degrees. The undergraduate population is up more than 37% from 2011 when she assumed the deanship. The latest incoming class of full-time MBAs is up by more than 20% to 90 students.

“The school is in a very strong position,” she adds. “Enrollments are off the charts. Our finances have never been stronger, and our results have never been higher. There are some great things we’ve accomplished.”

A Core Part Of Her Time As Dean: Deep Engagement In The Twin Cities Community

A landmark of her deanship was her embrace of the Twin Cities business and non-profit ecosystem. She has served on the boards of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Guthrie Theater, and the Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  The business community’s engagement with the school has resulted in a wealth of new experiential learning opportunities for students. Her parting advice to current and future deans: “I would encourage the deans in large cities to invest in the community. You actually get to build relationships which benefit the school in major ways. It is the same folks who are funding and advising on all the key elements of the community. That connection is huge.”

Yet, at the top of her list of accomplishments is “how deep and widespread this idea of business as a force for good as gotten embedded in the school based on faculty research, experiential learning for students, and outreach as well.” Ever since she used the phrase in a holiday video message in 2012, ‘business as a force for good’ has become the school’s unofficial motto. That theme–expressed long before other schools jumped on the ESG (Environment, Social & Governance) bandwagon–has informed the school’s substantial programming in experiential learning as well as the research agenda of some faculty members.

Among other things, the Carlson Analytics Lab and Analytics for Good Institute projects that analyzed how Hazelden Betty Ford could better treat addiction patients and found ways for Second Harvest Heartland to more effectively reach those eligible for SNAP benefits and reduce hunger. During the pandemic, the school also launched a hospitalization tracking project, led by Professor Pinar Karaca Mandic and Associate Professor Soumya Sen that became ione of the most visited pages on the school’s website. It resulted in nearly a dozen studies published in peer-reviewed journals and thousands of media mentions.

Carlson: At The Forefront Of Opening The Doors To Military Vets

More than any other business school dean, Zaheer opened the doors of the school to military veterans. Early in her deanship, in 2012, she added an on-staff retired military coordinator, a dedicated pool of scholarship funding for vets, and tailored career counseling, with pre-MBA internship programming, to ease the transition into civilian life. Carlson now boasts 19 specific scholarships for veterans, ranging from $7,500 to full tuition with a stipend for living expenses. The upshot: From just a pair of veterans enrolled 2013, the school now has educated more than 120 vets. Nearly one in four students are veterans. Not surprisingly, Carlson is the number one graduate business school in the country according to the Military Friendly rankings.

She believes the veterans initiative, moreover, has had a beneficial impact on the school’s MBA program where one in four students are vets. “It has really changed the culture in the classrooms,” says Zaheer. “The cases get read. The classes are very well prepared.”

Dean Zaheer also successfully navigated the school through the challenges of the pandemic, though not without some public controversy. She ended up making an apology that spilled into the local media for what Zaheer conceded were  “insensitive” remarks at a staff committee meeting last September. Some 18 months after the start of the COVID pandemic, Zaheer told committee members “you all really need to chill out and get over it…50,000 people die from the flu each year but no one talks about that.”

Will Focus Carlson School On A Successful Rollout Of A Revamped Undergraduate Program & Fundraising For Building Improvements

Over the nest year or so until the university finds a successor, Zaheer says she will be focused on raising more funds to reimagine  the space in the school’s flagship building. The improvements will enhance Carlson’s delivery of experiential learning projects. She will also manage the roll out this fall of a new undergraduate curriculum which will now be organized around three central themes: people and planet, data and technology, and critical thinking and problem solving.

The revamped curriculum was the result of a review process that included a 14-member committee of stakeholders from across the school. Feedback was gathered, via surveys and interviews, from more than 1,000 faculty, current students, alumni, and employers. The school also benchmarked its offering against the top ten undergraduate business programs in the world, with an additional ten “for calibration.”

“We want to roll that out very significantly into our undergraduate program,” she says. “Every undergrad will have to go through two experiential projects though something we are calling the Impact Lab. These are real projects. Every single student will have had that experience while an undergraduate, along with the foundations for impact which is critical thinking and problems solving. And they will do all that through a cohort learning community.”

In addition to her Fed duties, Zaheer was recently elected to her first corporate board at HB Fuller, and also invited to be among the top editors of the Journal of International Business Studies. As the journal’s new impact editor, she will evaluate the impact of scholarly research on practice in the real world. “I am looking forward to getting into a real company again,” says Zaheer, who once worked for Tata Consultancy Services and Sandoz (India) Ltd.

What will she most miss when she turns over the job? “Hearing stories of our alumni,” says Zaheer. “That is not something you get to do very much as a faculty member and that just makes you believe in what you are doing.  People have gone on to do such interesting things. Our alumni have led the Los Angeles Symphony; they have started unicorns, and the top librarian in Washington D.C., is a Carlson graduate. And often they are from very humble backgrounds.” 

In an email to the university community, Provost Rachel T.A. Croson lauded Zaheer’s deanship and said the university will launch a national search for her successor later this semester. “I am delighted that the school and university will continue to benefit from Sri’s leadership while we conduct the search for a successor,” wrote Croson, who added that a search committee will be composed of faculty with staff, student and external representatives.  “Sri’s outstanding collaborative leadership as dean, working with all of you, has positioned the school extremely well for the future. Following the completion of the search, Sri will continue to bring distinction to the school and university through her teaching and research.”

DON’T MISS: Meet Minnesota Carlson’s MBA Class Of 2022 or How The Carlson School Connects Top Research With The MBA Experience



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