Poets&Quants’ Dean Of The Year: Ann Harrison Of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School Of Business

Berkeley Haas

Students in Haas’ Executive MBA Program.Photos Copyright Noah Berger / 2016.

DETERMINED NOT TO FIT INTO A ‘WEAK-DEAN MODEL’

Harrison earned her Ph.D. from Princeton in 1991 and remained at the World Bank until 1994. “I started sending my papers out to be published, and much to my astonishment, people liked them,” she says. “At some point, Dani Rodrik at Harvard’s Kennedy School asked me to teach there for a year during his sabbatical.” She spent a year as a visiting faculty member of Harvard’s School of Government, returning to the World Bank in 1992. It was Rodrik who later called Harrison to let her know that Columbia Business School was looking for an assistant professor. “It seemed like a wonderful opportunity since I developed a love for research,” she recalls. “I went and became an academic. It was a very circuitous path, and I have spent my career going back and forth between these two worlds.”

Harrison joined Columbia as an assistant professor of finance and economics in 1994, gained a promotion to associate professor four years later in 1998, and returned to Berkeley as a full professor of agricultural and resource economics in 2001. But her love of the World Bank would intervene yet again. She went on leave from Berkeley in 2009 to become a trade team manager at the World Bank, and then director of development policy, until returning to academia at Wharton in 2012. It wasn’t until she received an email from a search consultant, asking if she would be interested in the Haas opening. “I was thrilled” by the outreach, Harrison says. “Haas is a really special place. The focus on culture and the school’s position within the greater university is special. I spoke to my family, my friends, and others who had either considered or had become deans. Everybody around me was very supportive. Everyone seemed to think it would be a great fit.”

So would a return to California where she spent many years. An avid hiker, she once climbed the 25 miles to Half Dome, 8,800 feet above sea level, in California’s Yosemite National Park. “I just love nature,” says Harrison, who routinely goes off on ten-mile-or-more hikes through the wilderness. California, with its cliff-lined beaches, redwood forest, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is a paradise for those who love the outdoors.

In preparing for the new role at Haas, Harrison closely read a pair of case studies on Haas’ culture written in 2017 and 2019 by previous Haas Dean Rich Lyons and management Professor Jennifer Chatman. Among other things, the studies concluded that the business school was run within a system of shared governance with the ladder faculty and with the university at large. Faculty acknowledged that decision-making was very “consensus-driven” where “individual blockers” could play a big role in getting things done. “Staff can be blockers just as much as faculty can be blockers, just as much as students or admissions can be blockers,” noted Andrew Rose, then associate dean for academic affairs and now an emeritus professor. “Shared governance means we have more say over things like hiring, what we teach, how we teach, etc. It also means the dean has less control; the dean doesn’t control our salaries unilaterally, hiring, or a host of other things. We are in a weak dean system. When you want to get the faculty to do something big, the dean has to get buy-in from faculty.”

Berkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison

Berkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small

‘BERKELEY IS OPEN TO CHANGE’

Instead of viewing the culture in those terms, Harrison saw it as a challenge. “They described Berkeley as having a weak dean model. Deans couldn’t expect to get much done,” recalls Harrison. ” It’s true that Berkeley is a very consensus-driven institution. The negative is that it can take time to get things done but once you achieve agreement it is a great way to proceed. I would beg to differ with that weak-dean statement. Berkeley is open to change.”

From the start, she set three priorities: To increase philanthropy; explore ways to more deeply leverage the broader community at the university and beyond, and make the Haas School more diverse and inclusive. “Usually one does shift priorities but they have pretty much stayed the same,” she says now. “I started my deanship six months before I officially started. I did a lot of talking with constituents including alumni. The only thing that came along that none of us anticipated was the pandemic. And that eventually led to our new Flex program (an online cohort in the part-time MBA that provides the core online while allowing students to take electives on campus). The priorities are still the same,” she says now. “Those challenges of inclusion and sustainability are even more important. The Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t even happened yet when I started. We have made progress but much needs to be done.”

In her very first year on the job, Harrison helped to create a more inclusive school, representative of the state’s population, doubled student scholarships, and quadrupled the percentage of underrepresented minorities in its MBA program. She hired a chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and an executive director of sustainability programs, and began developing more joint degree programs across Berkeley. Then, in March of 2020, the pandemic changed everything. Haas had to immediately move to remote instruction for all six of its degree programs in 48 hours. Navigating the school through the pandemic disruptions immediately became all-consuming. “As is true with any leadership role it’s kind of a 24/7 job,” she says. “During the pandemic that was challenging because not only was it 24/7, but we were flying the plane and trying to figure out how to do it at the same time. It was the most challenging thing I have faced. No one knew the answers. We couldn’t look to the university leadership to solve our problems. That is where having an incredible faculty and staff made a difference.”

Yet, Harrison prevailed, often to the amazement of colleagues. “It was incredibly challenging to start during the pandemic,” Senior Assistant Dean Walker recalls. “I could easily see someone saying, ‘No thank you,’ after being in the role. We got through it and we are in pretty darn good shape.”

‘WE HAVE A VERY BROAD PERSPECTIVE ON SUSTAINABILITY

Even as the campus closed down for COVID, Harrison put together an eight-member task force to update the MBA curriculum. The result: three new required core courses rolled out in 2021 on data analytics, data-focused decision-making, and leading diverse teams. The new courses focused on using big data and artificial intelligence, leveraging data to create and make persuasive arguments, and emphasizing understanding bias and making sure there is equality in opportunity across organizations.

Since those early changes, Harrison has led a major initiative to put Haas among the very best business schools in sustainability, persuading faculty to embed the topic in nearly every course taught at the school. Haas was cited in the Financial Times as a model of increased focus on sustainability, and the school is now finalizing a joint MBA and master’s degree in climate solutions with Berkeley’s Rausser College of Natural Resources. Haas has also launched its own Sustainable Business Research Prize, which will award $20,000 to the best study on the topic.

“We have a very broad perspective on sustainability,” says Harrison. “The challenges of climate change permeate all aspects of business: supply chain, economics, management, and finance. In the latter field, we have pioneered new ways of investing. We need to hire in all these dimensions. It is a big agenda and we are making a lot of progress in a lot of different ways. We’ve added several courses from measuring your carbon footprint to what it means to do sustainable investments and giving students money to invest.”

HER LEADERSHIP STYLE: LISTENING TO OTHERS BUT WITH AN AMBITIOUS VISION

It’s an excellent example of her persuasive abilities. “She has been able to get our faculty to rethink our current content and weave in sustainability in their courses,” says Assistant Dean Chandler. “Every course should address how the work connects to sustainability. She got several ladder faculty to alter their courses. You might get a handful of volunteers but we had a good number of people do it, with the support of development grants she brought in. She is incredibly well respected by the faculty and knows what challenges they face as thought leaders and researchers.”

Or consider how she gained approvals to convert Haas’ two-year undergraduate business program into a four-year program. Walker had been wrestling with the conversation for more than five years. “We couldn’t do it unless we had the right resources to deliver a stellar program,” says Walker. ” In our very first conversation, she said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.’ She got it. She thought it made absolute sense. And she was able to secure commitments to move in this direction. We had to get support from other schools and colleges at the university. She was fantastic about getting in there and having conversations with other deans and the Academic Senate. She was able to anticipate the challenges we would have and was able to mitigate them early on in the process. She never shied away from the hard conversations. She was very good about staying tenacious about it and allowing this to be a priority for the school.”

Haas will welcome its first cohort of undergrads in the four-year program next fall. The change–which will allow students to have more than a single internship–will result in a significant increase in students from about 950 now to 1,500.

‘SHE GOES TO BAT FOR HER PEOPLE

She also has made much progress on the diversity front, increasing the number of female ladder faculty by 50% from 20% to 30% and joining The Consortium to help recruit more underrepresented minority students. “I feel wonderful about that,” says Harrison. “When Prop 209 (which banned affirmative action programs in California) was passed, the diversity of the university declined quite significantly, but over time all of the UC schools found ways to recruit a more representative study body. After I came, we did find ways to adhere to the law and we now have a higher percentage of women students and faculty. We were very successful early on in creating a more diverse student body, particularly for underrepresented minorities. One area where we backtracked a little is in underrepresented students. Unfortunately, other top schools got on the bandwagon, and they have deep pockets. There has been a lot of scholarship money out there that has made the competition for wonderful students more challenging and that has hurt us.” The school’s full-time MBA class comprises 41% women, 48% U.S. minorities, and 13% underrepresented minorities overall. 

Key to Harrison’s ability to move quickly is her emphasis on listening and building relationships across campus. “I think it’s important to be a good listener,” she says. ” You need to hear what people are saying. We have a brilliant staff and they have played an important role in running the school in recent years. Listening is a really important part of that. At the same time, it’s important to have an ambitious vision and an informed direction. You need to re ambitious about it. I try to think about where the world is moving and where you need to be.”

Her supportive nature also helps. “She goes to bat for her people,” says Chandler, who says that Harrison encouraged her to get a doctorate and has gone the extra mile in retaining faculty.  “She was supportive of me. It’s an example of how much she believes in her team and her people. She connects on a very personal level. She is that kind of leader.”

THE FUTURE: MORE ONLINE LEARNING LIKELY

No less important, Harrison was able to pursue her change agenda without abandoning the school’s guiding principles to question the status quo,  increase one’s confidence without attitude, remain students always, and reach beyond yourself. Those cultural attributes were set in stone by Rich Lyons, her predecessor. Both she and Lyons share the discipline of economics and also are friends. “They knew each other and shared a mutual respect,” believes Chandler. “Rich wanted to set up the next dean to be successful. But then it took Ann to say, ‘Okay, Rich left me a school that is in really good shape but I still think there is a lot of potential here. Growing the faculty was critical to support the number of degree programs and students we have at Haas. She was able to build on that energy and move us forward. She expanded and diversified the advisory board which helps on the fundraising side. I think she was wise to use the momentum that Rich left. She drove the organization forward but did it in a way that was very consistent with the way Rich left it.”

As for the future, besides the expected growth in Haas’ undergraduate program, Harrison will likely add a second Flex cohort to the school’s part-time MBA program and bring forward still more collaborations with other university schools. On a six-month sabbatical that ends on Dec. 31st, Harrison is working on a book and two articles and looking forward to her return.

“If you take the last five years and project them into the future I see that making different modalities will be important for growth,” she says, referring to the school’s online learning initiative. “The idea of a stackable degree where you take on certain certificates. That is brilliant and we don’t do that at Haas. We are still very challenged about who gets a degree. We are not nearly as diverse as we need to be. Changing the modalities makes it easier because online learning  is more appealing to women and underrepresented minorities.”

As Harrison points out, the majority of new business students in recent years is enrolling in online programs. “I don’t think things are as dire as Geoff predicted five years ago,” she says. “There is huge demand for business education. The expectations of what students want has changed, too. They just don’t care anymore about only the bottom line. Students care about making a difference through business. They want more than just a great paycheck. They really care about the world at large.”

One thing is certain: Harrison’s drive and vision have made sure that a rising tide will never overtake the island on which Haas firmly stands.

WATCH: OUR INTERVIEW WITH DEAN HARRISON AT THE THINKERS50 EVENT

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