The End of the Academic Year
The new dean of the Farmer School of Business reflects on lessons learned during the pandemic era and makes plans for the future.
In the summer of 2020, Jenny Darroch took on the dean’s role at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio. Through a series of articles that first appeared in BizEd, she has shared her ongoing insights about her first year on the job. In a September article, she described the challenges of choosing priorities and setting a budget. In a December piece, she outlined how she identified the school’s strengths and began long-term strategic planning. In a March post, she examined what steps the school was taking to prepare students for the new normal of a post-pandemic era. Here, in the final installment of this series, she describes the accomplishments the school, the faculty, and the students have achieved during the COVID era, and she looks ahead to the next academic year.
As I write the last diary entry chronicling my inaugural year as dean of the Farmer School of Business, we are entering the final stages of the semester. We’re holding spring meetings with many of our advisory boards, naming recipients of faculty research and teaching awards, and identifying winners of student achievement awards.
We are also planning for an in-person, socially distanced graduation ceremony. I have to confess that graduation is my favorite time of the year because it simply reminds me why I do the job I do. The fact that we can recognize our graduates in person this year will make the ceremony all the more special.
The end of the academic year is a time of great reflection. None of us need to be reminded of the year we have all experienced—dominated by COVID-19, our administrative responses to the virus, the ensuing budget challenges, and the racial awakening that has rightly consumed our society.
All of us have had our own personal relationships with the year. For my part, I moved more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles to Oxford, Ohio, to take up a new deanship; worked mostly from home; and haven’t been able to see my adult children who live in New Zealand. But as we close the spring semester, I look back proudly on everything that has been accomplished in this very unusual time.
Has it been easy? No. We are all tired, and our students, in particular, are showing signs of fatigue. But they have demonstrated incredible resilience and the ability to deal with ambiguity—both traits that are valued in today’s workforce. At the Farmer School, course evaluations are as good as or better than last year’s. We anticipate another record number of incoming freshmen this fall. As we prepare for the upcoming academic year, we pause to ponder the lessons of the last one.
One achievement I’m proud of is the continuation of our First-Year Integrated Curriculum (FYIC), which launched six years ago. Despite the complexities and resources required to implement this curriculum, we made it a priority during the pandemic year, because we believe it sets students up for success.
In the FYIC, students are put on teams to work on real client challenges. During COVID, when much of the course delivery was remote, being on teams helped students develop a sense of community and belonging, which also helped first-year students transition to college. In the future, we plan to deepen our approach to course integration, because we believe the future of work will require managers who have interdisciplinary skills.
Students have demonstrated incredible resilience and the ability to deal with ambiguity—both traits that are valued in today’s workforce.
I also have been impressed by watching our faculty pivot to a range of delivery modalities while finding creative ways to enhance the classroom experience and keep students engaged. All faculty members also responded to the pandemic by adding one course to their usual responsibilities to help balance the budget. We needed to do this because the university asked us to heavily reduce our reliance on visiting faculty and have continuing faculty make up the shortfall.
Other stakeholders have been equally committed during this difficult year. Our staff have been outstanding as they adjusted to working from home and found ways to keep the school moving forward. Our alumni have stayed engaged and offered their time and talent in multiple ways. Our donors have stepped up to help us exceed our fundraising goals, which has provided light at the end of the budgeting tunnel.
Finally, I am proud of the work the school did to prepare for and conclude our AACSB peer review team visit in mid-April. Faculty and staff collaborated well to develop a report that showcased the last five years while creating a strategic plan to guide us through the next five years.
As for my own activities this year, I spent more time focused on finances and operations than I would have liked. But I am not complaining, because this focus helped me develop an intimate understanding of the business school, and for that I am very grateful.
Because of COVID, I did all my external work via Zoom, and not in person. This turned out to be a real bonus, because I spent much less time on the road than I normally would have. This gave me time to spend more hours in internal reflection.
As the academic year comes to a close, I find myself thinking about the concept of management as a liberal art—a philosophy advanced by Peter Drucker and one that has shaped my career. Joe Maciariello and Karen Linkletter captured the concept well in their book Drucker’s Lost Art of Management. In it, they write, “At its heart, management as a liberal art deals with questions of the human condition.”
COVID-19 put the spotlight on the need for people to self-direct and self-regulate. It also put the spotlight on our need for community and purpose.
I came to the Farmer School of Business from the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California. I was dean there for almost four years, and many Drucker principles continue to guide me today. But it is his view of effective leadership that seems most poignant at this moment. Drucker characterized an effective leader as someone who nurtures and articulates a set of shared values; provides people with status, function, and a sense of community and purpose; and ultimately believes that people will self-direct and self-regulate to get things done.
COVID-19 put the spotlight on the need for people to self-direct and self-regulate. It also put the spotlight on our need for community and purpose. Our communities are places where people flourish. They are places where individuals learn, grow, and realize their potential. As we enter a post-COVID world, it is on us as leaders to continue to create communities—both on campus and in the workplace—where such growth and flourishing are possible.
The Time Is Now
As the academic year ends, I also think about what lies ahead for higher education—and therefore, what the future holds for my school and my university. My personal view is that the time is now for us to embrace creativity and innovation in higher education.
When I recently read “The New U,” a special report by Salesforce.org that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I was reminded of just how homogenous universities have become. So often we appear to be copying each other as we compete for a declining pool of traditional undergraduate students. In the end, we are all trying to get our students to a similar place, armed with similar skill sets, so it makes sense that some of our offerings and methods would look alike. But even as we strive for the same goals, we differentiate ourselves by taking a variety of approaches to delivering education.
As I think about my first year at the Farmer School of Business, I am very appreciative of the many assets that provided a strong academic foundation for our perseverance and success. We know undergraduate business education, and we know how to do it well. We genuinely put student success at the center of all that we do. That is the fact that will guide me in visualizing and articulating the future strategic direction for the school and in supporting the team as we implement the initiatives that will allow us to meet our goals.
I am excited about what could be possible next year. Among other things, I’m looking forward to enhancing the student experience in several key areas. For instance, based on the success of FYIC, we are working to extend our integrated curriculum beyond the first year, particularly by expanding our cultural intelligence work. We’re also considering new opportunities in areas such as global learning experiences and career services. To make these and other initiatives possible, I will prioritize developing new sources of revenue and increasing the budget.
But first, I am planning a summer road trip so I can really explore my new surroundings here in Oxford. Wishing you all a healthy summer with many opportunities to connect with others in meaningful ways and to recharge for the fall semester.
Jenny Darroch is the dean and Mitchell P. Rales Chair in Business Leadership at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio.