Rochester Simon Dean Sevin Yeltekin On The MBA’s Value & More

Rochester Simon Business School

Carnegie Mellon’s loss has surely been Rochester Simon’s gain.

When Sevin Yeltekin, a highly admired senior associate dean and professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business become the first woman to lead the Simon School in July of 2020, it seemed like a match made in heaven. After all, the background of the brainy economics professor synced well with Simon’s reputation as a rigorous, analytical, and research-driven business school.

Two and one-half years into her deanship, Yeltekin has put forward a strategic plan based on four pillars to bring Simon to a new level. Under her leadership, she helped the school successfully navigate the pandemic, launched a new online master’s in business analytics, breathed new life into a public policy center, and most importantly, set an agenda that includes a doubling down on intellectual capital, entrepreneurial thinking, opportunity and access, and partnerships that expand the reach and capabilities of the school.

Born in Turkey, she went to high school in Istanbul, graduating from Robert College, a five-year high school operating under the Turkish Ministry of Education in the English language. She first came to the U.S. on a scholarship to attend Wellesley College and graduated in three and one-half years after majoring in both economics and mathematics in 1993. It was an “exhilarating” honors thesis in economics at Wellesley that instilled an initial desire to pursue an academic life. At first, she shortly joined an economic consulting firm but found the work boring and repetitive. “That’s what’s really cemented the idea of being an academic,” she says. Yeltekin went on to Stanford University to earn her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in economics in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

In this interview, Yeltekin reflects on her upbringing in Turkey, the influence of her mother in pursuing an academic life, why there are so few women holding business school deanships, and her strongly held belief in the value of the MBA degree.

You joined the Simon Business School as dean in July of 2020 at the height of the pandemic that disrupted everyone’s lives. How much more challenging did that make your entry?

It’s almost impossible to tell because you don’t know what you should be benchmarking it against Physically I was moving, and I wasn’t able to move my family at first, so I was also commuting between Rochester and Pittsburgh for quite a long time. Being online helped a little bit so that the physical aspect of it was not as demanding as a full commute would have been but at the same time, nothing was operating normally and it made for new challenges. Every day we would meet. We would make some decisions, and I was trying to learn the institution, learn how things are done there, and also sort of learn the job itself, because I hadn’t been a dean before, although I had worked in the Dean’s office as a senior associate team. It was very challenging. I’m not going to lie. You feel like you’re trying to find your footing while everything else is making you off-kilter.

You are one of a relatively few number of women who is the dean of a highly prominent business school. Why do you think there are so few?

A lot of it is quite honestly the pipeline, especially in business schools. In economics or operations, you don’t see a lot of women reaching the ranks of full professors. But at least there has been some headway in terms of hiring junior faculty. There is a big drop off to full professor and that’s relatively universal. Most of the deans come from an academic background and rise through the academic ranks. I think there’s a pipeline problem.

This is not just a gender issue but probably makes things harder for women. A lot of schools are not very good at actually giving management training to academics. We are researchers, we are teachers. Yes, we manage a classroom. Yes, we might manage a program, but that’s a whole other type of management, authority, and a different kind of system. So when you get to the dean level, I think there needs to be some more training, especially how to navigate that structure, how to find good wise counsel. We’re not that good at it in academia and preparing people for leadership roles.

Some also say it is more difficult for female faculty to get the mentorship that would be helpful to advance once in an academic career.

Absolutely. Most institutions don’t have very structured mentoring. Faculty are independent agents. They don’t necessarily like very structured programming. That kind of tells them how to interact with their research peers. At the same time, I do think that there are huge gaps in how we can help women navigate the academic side of the house but also the administrative side. I think we don’t prepare most people very much for these management and administrative roles. Yet, we do give a lot of administrative burdens to women. If you’re picking from three women as opposed to 30 men, those three women are going to be overtaxed. so you find yourself on a million committees or in a million different administrative roles. Women do take on a lot of non-productive administrative jobs that really don’t have a big impact on their careers.

So you’ve now been in the deanship for a little more than two and one-0half years, or just over half your first five-year term. Looking back at what you’ve done, what are you most proud of?

Certainly navigating the school through the pandemic successfully. We came out of the pandemic well, morale-wise. Both in terms of our student satisfaction, and also financially in a really good place. We didn’t lose a lot of enrollment. We didn’t lose a lot of applications. It was not always smooth sailing. But the team here works really collaboratively together to problem solve. People put in their best effort to try to get us through that stage. And so I’m very proud of being able to navigate that especially after coming in during the height of it as an outsider.

And in the meantime, I developed a strategic plan for the school. It’s called Simon 2025 and outlines four pillars of where we want to make investments. We also developed an equity, diversity, and inclusion action plan. Simon had been investing in that area for a long time, but it hadn’t really coalesced into a comprehensive plan of how to move forward.

All of us thought we would be out of the pandemic by the end of the summer. We had no idea how well and how quickly we were going to come out of it. But you have to get on and think about the future of the school, and you have to think about where we are going. How are we going to get the resources to do what we need to do? So I’m really proud of being able to point the ship and make sure that it’s sailed through the storm really successfully.

Let’s talk a little bit about your four pillars and why you chose them. 

It wasn’t a top-down approach. I had a lot of conversations with faculty, students, alumni, and staff. My peer deans at the university and the previous deans, Andrew Ainslie and Mark Zupan. I wanted to know what alumni remember about the school and then what makes them come back and volunteer and contribute to the school. What impact did it have on their lives? So I gathered a lot of information, and then, as you talk to different stakeholders, themes start to emerge. So what you see in those four pillars is very much representative of those themes, and those themes are what makes Simon Simon. It’s a link to the DNA and the history of the school, like the investment in intellectual capital. But it’s also a focus on areas where we either did not invest before or maybe haven’t invested as much.

What are your four pillars?

One of them is our desire to keep investing in intellectual capital. We want to make the school an intellectual hub. It’s always been a research-based business school. We’re not very big, and for us to continue to be an intellectual hub, not just for our faculty and our current students, but for our alumni, we need to enlarge that hub. One thing I heard very strongly from alumni is how they really like that intellectual give and take. They want to be pushed to think, being pushed to new things, and I wanted to continue to provide that. But maybe in an extended way. So we’re going to invest. We’ve been on the hiring side, investing in a lot of faculty as well as developing platforms for us to engage with our audience intellectually.

I started a dean’s blog. We write about our research in a more general audience way, whether it’s crypto or supply chain problems. So we’re trying to really enlarge that dialogue and extend it beyond the very academic domain.

The second pillar is about entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset actually. Everybody needs to understand that innovation is the key to who’s being successful. It’s all the new companies continuing to innovate, and we, as an institution. need to do the same. Not everybody has to form a startup. But we all have to have that entrepreneurial, innovative mindset. At Simon, it comes from this very academic grounding. And while we had some project classes and things like that, I thought one really good way to continue to bolster, that is to provide better scaffolding and infrastructure for experiential learning. We want to do a lot more in terms of bringing the science of business and the practice of business a little closer together. So we have a new corporate engagement plan. We have a new experiential learning group that we have expanded. We’re continuing to invest in projects that more than 100 of our students do through pro bono consulting work.

The third pillar is about opportunity and access, which is very close to both my heart and Simon’s heart because educational opportunity changed my life. Whether it’s student debt, or debt relief, or access to higher education. If we have a talented, eager, ambitious student, I would love to be able to remove an impediment for them to come.

This includes our staff. Simon is the first school I’ve been at where a lot of our staff actually takes our part-time MBA program. It provides a challenge for us because they earn their MBAs and then get poached by a lot of different places. But at the same time that’s really a stamp of approval on the education and the opportunities that we provide. At the Ph.D. level, we’re trying to work with historically black universities to put our tentacles in as many places as possible to try to get that pipeline enriched.

And finally, it’s really about partnerships and agile growth because again we’re not a very big school, both in terms of our faculty and student size. So you can’t be everything to everybody. If I want to offer you different kinds of classes or different kinds of experiences, we’re not always going to be able to do that from scratch on our own.

The business school sometimes sits a little bit siloed to the side of the rest of the university. So one thing I’ve been doing very extensively is pairing up with our Medical Center, with our Arts and Sciences folks, and with our education school so that we can offer things at the intersection of those domains. There’s a need for training, there’s a need for skills. We have certain assets and certain strengths. They have certain assets and certain strengths so combining those together is the better way to go than making everything from scratch.

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