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.
‘IF A COLLEGE ONLY HAS DEGREES, IT WILL BECOME IRRELEVANT’
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.”
A CULTURE OF BOLDNESS THAT ENCOURAGES EXPERIMENTATION
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.”
JEFFREY BROWN: DEAN OF THE YEAR
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.
Gies College of Business
University of Illinois
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia
Kelley School of Business
Foster School of Business
University of Washington
Kellogg School of Management
IE Business School
Yale School of Management
Tuck School of Business
Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto
Harvard Business School
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia
Jeffrey Brown, dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2015. UIUC photo
SKEPTICAL UPFRONT OF AN INTERNAL CANDIDATE WITH LITTLE ADMINISTRATIVE EXPERIENCE
“I was a bit skeptical upfront,” concedes Julie Scott, an alumnus who is CEO of CTS Holdings and who served on the selection committee. “He was an internal candidate and I hoped this wasn’t a rubber stamp on an appointment. But when he presented his plan, everyone was captivated. He made a huge impression on us right from the beginning. He was not looking to maintain the status quo. What sticks out in my mind was the impression that he would be a true innovator and a visionary. And I don’t throw those terms around. He has this uncanny ability to see around corners and anticipate things.”
Brown prevailed over three other finalists for the job, taking over the leadership of the school in August of 2015, six months before the school enrolled its first cohort of online MBA students. Immediately, he faced what would be the most difficult set of decisions of his deanship. If he believed online learning was crucial to the school’s future, Brown had to double down on it. That was made difficult, if not impossible, by the resources already taken by several high-profile graduate programs that were struggling to bring me-too offerings in a crowded market.
First, he pulled the plug on Gies’ Executive MBA offering in downtown Chicago. Then, the school’s Master of Taxation program. And finally in May of 2019, Gies’ full-time residential MBA program and its part-time MBA, too. He made those decisions even when some faculty were still skeptical of online learning and when another Big Ten dean lost her job in the wake of trying to shut down a full-time MBA program. Just two years earlier, at University of Wisconsin’s school of business, a planned closure of the residential MBA led to a noisy revolt by students and alumni. The ensuing protests and petitions led to the dean’s abrupt departure and the reversal of the proposal.
‘THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS WERE KEY’
Undaunted, Brown had to clear the deck to make the necessary investments in both the school’s undergraduate business program and its online learning initiative. “It was a really hard decision,” recalls Shelley Campbell, senior assistant dean of administration. “On paper, it seemed pretty easy. We were hemorrhaging money on this program and it was not necessarily reputation enhancing. To me, it seemed an easy idea to shift expenditures. The hard part was there were a lot of senior faculty very invested in that program. But he constantly kept focused on how it would benefit the college.”
Brown met with each faculty member who taught in the program in one-on-one sessions to explain his rationale. The college could continue to invest in declining programs that were in the red or it could shut them down and focus more attention and resources online, serving ten times the number of students. “From a mission standpoint, it was a no-brainer,” says Brown. “But I knew the emotional reaction would make it difficult. We were in a crowded market and we lacked scale. We did not have a unique identity, and the program was not distinctive. The faculty understood the decision and then I met with the EMBA students at the end of one of their classes and that was brutal. They asked a lot of tough questions including ‘What will it mean for the value of our degrees?’ We got through it.”
After closing the Executive MBA, Brown then focused on the more public decision of shutting down both the full and part-time MBA programs. The justification was the same. “The opportunity costs were key,” says Brown. “We needed to devote the time and resources to do online well. A leadership team only has so much bandwidth. And this, too, was a struggling market and we had never cracked the code on how to differentiate our programs in it. We had one of the widest reputation gaps between our undergraduate business program and our MBA. I just knew it would create a certain amount of disappointment and negativity that we would have to manage. “
A DECISION TO TOUCH THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS ONLINE
The disappointment was astutely managed and no major backlash erupted. Brown quietly spoke with key alumni. He made sure to respond to every email, no matter how negative. In some cases, it led to long phone calls and difficult meetings with alumni. “He spent a lot of time behind the scenes on it,” remembers Gies. “He reminded everyone that we were touching 300 people with our full-time resident program when we could touch thousands online. A lot of people bought into that. It wasn’t an economic decision in a vacuum. It wasn’t a ranking decision. It was a decision about access. He had to convince with the university administration, the Senate, the faculty, and the students. He really took the time one-on-one with the thought leaders, including those who thought it was a bad idea. They appreciated that he spent the time even though some were going to be disappointed by the decision. To stop a residential MBA program took unbelievable courage.”
In retrospect, those difficult decisions set the stage for explosive growth. From an initial cohort of 116 students in Gies’ long-distance iMBA six years ago, there are now more than 4,300 students enrolled in the school’s iMBA, itself an innovative partnership with Coursera, the online education provider. During the 2020 iMBA intake, 3,280 applicants poured in from all over the world as Gies processed a record 1,577 new online MBA students. Another online degree option, Gies’ $11,000 master’s in management, boasts nearly 700 students, even though it was launched one year ago. It is the most successful launch of a graduate program ever on the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus.
To accommodate the swell in students took massive resources. Brown got the school’s most senior tenured faculty to teach online, gave the okay to build six video studios and to hire an army of course and teaching assistants. Today, some 60 professors at Gies are teaching the live and pre-recorded classes, while course assistants, largely PhD and graduate students in a specific course-related discipline, now number 300 people who help with grading, assessments, and engaging students. All told, the total still-growing team to deliver learning online numbers 480 administrators, faculty and staff.
‘UNLIKE MOST DEANS, HE FOLLOWS UP WITH RESOURCES’
In one of his most perceptive personnel decisions, Brown plucked the head of the school’s accounting department to lead online learning. Brooke Elliott, put into the job as an associate dean in February of 2020, has been a dynamo. She has led the rapid growth, launched the highly successful online management degree, renegotiated the school’s terms with Coursera, enlisted Coursera’s help in creating new AI software for grading at scale, and forged a unique partnership with Google to prepare learners in the Google Career Certificate programs with critical business skills like leadership, teamwork, and strategic thinking.
Recruited by Brown at a local Houlihan’s, Elliott immediately saw the appeal of working with him. “One of the great things about Jeff is that he is willing to make very difficult decisions,” she says. “He is willing to speak and promote what he believes. He talks about the disruption in higher education and how we cannot rest on our laurels. He says that what we are going to do will look different from what anyone expects. He isn’t apologetic and he isn’t asking people to come on board with him. He says this is what we are going to do, and the faculty are inspired by his vision and his confidence. Unlike other deans, he lays out a vision and then follows up with the resources. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
Members of his leadership team praise Brown for giving them the freedom to act on big and small ideas. “All the things we’ve done couldn’t have happen without Jeff letting go and allowing people to contribute and lead and own different areas of the college,” says Jackson. “We have really made so many changes on so many fronts that require having the right people and letting them do it. That not only frees up Jeff to do other things that are bold but it helps develops leaders. That is a space where academia struggles. I think Jeff has really prioritized having the right people in leadership and then allowing them that space to grow as leaders. I think the college truly benefits from having that.”
Most impressive is that Brown has used that vision and leadership style to construct an online initiative with remarkable reach and scale to serve students in more than 100 countries and in every state (see below). To date, the school has taught 2.8 million MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) learners and 9,000 degree students. Gies can lay claim to having the highest MOOC-to-degree conversion rate of any partner on the Coursera platform. Thanks to online programs, the school now has more than 2,500 new Gies alumni. No less impressive, some 3,000 women are working toward or have earned a degree online, while 1,200 underrepresented minorities have been served.
A Gies professor teaches in a live online class in one of the school's six studios.
'A LEVEL OF HUMILITY I HAVE NEVER SEEN IN MY LIFE FOR A LEADER'
Brown managed to achieve this success even in the face of pandemic-caused cutbacks in university spending, a testament to his ability to convince higher-ups of the school's direction. "He has the temperament to deal in a large university environment," says Gies, who marvels at the fact that he and his wife, Beth, were able to make the largest donation in the university's history in little time. "I have a friend trying to make a large donation to a school for six years now," he laughs, "and it is still not done. Jeff did it in weeks. There is a level of humility that I have never seen in my life for someone in that kind of leadership position."
Brown not only reeled in the gift in October of 2017, he had to convince a reluctant Gies to put his name on the college. "He said we need a name because every major business school has a name," remembers Gies. "We need that name to resonate with what I want to do on this campus which is have students think more purposely about their education. He wanted students to think about the why of it all. Why am I going to wake up in the morning and want to do what I do? He loved what we were trying to do with our own businesses, and he felt that that would be an important part of what they do on campus. And finally, he said, 'Look, within a few months, it’s not your name. The students will make it theirs and define it by what they do in the world.'
Then, on the day of the naming, recalls Gies, "We were walking down the hallway on the second floor and we turned the corner and looked down where they were going to have the announcement. He saw hundreds of people and said in that humble way, 'Oh, thank God they came.' And he was right. It’s their name. It’s not mine. They are defining it, and it is beautiful. I feel so humbled and lucky to have an impact. I would not have done it without Jeff and his leadership."
'HE IS LIKE A NEGATIVE BETA STOCK'
Dean of the Year for 2021: Jeffrey Brown of the Gies College of Business
Brown's vision has brought other big donors to the table. Steve Shebik, the retired vice chair of The Allstate Corporation, and his wife, Megan, recently pledged $2.5 million to construct a shared instructional facility for Gies on the south end of the campus. The new business building will house larger classrooms, expanded facilities and production studios for Gies’ eLearning team, and the Magelli Office of Experiential Learning. Shebik says this latest gift, after earlier donations to fund student scholarships and a faculty fellowship to support teaching excellence, was made “entirely to provide a lead foundational investment in Jeff’s vision to attract other funding.”
Both Gies and Shebik have placed their bets on a highly-liked and effective leader who comes across as just another great guy. Scott Weisbenner, a professor in Gies' finance department who was a fellow PhD student at MIT with Brown, attests to the dean’s reliability as a friend and colleague. “As a friend, if you are in trouble or feeling down, he is your first call," says Weisbenner. "For one, he’s a good listener, but he is also very smart. He has good advice. Using a finance term, he is like a negative beta stock. He is a friend you go to but with a very high return.”
Make no mistake, however, Brown has had to break rules to achieve many of the school's successes. "There are written rules and unwritten rules, and I don’t know how many we have truly broken," he concedes. "But we have definitely pushed the envelope. To use the old adage, lots of times we asked for forgiveness rather than permission. Maybe we broke a system or a process or a policy, but I was very fortunate to have a provost, a chancellor and a system president who believes in what we are doing. I try not to put any of them in a position to make their lives more difficult, but there are times when we have needed them to step in to help because maybe we broke a rule that we shouldn’t have and we just needed some help working through it."
AN INSURANCE POLICY BET ON A DECLINE IN CHINESE STUDENTS THAT PAID OFF
It helps that, time and time again, Brown has shown his prescience about the higher education market. In November of 2018, more than a year before the World Health Organization announced that a mysterious coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan, China, Brown had taken out a $424,000 insurance policy with Lloyd's of London to protect against the loss of tuition revenue from any significant drop in Chinese student enrollment. Needless to say, it was a brilliant move.
So was the school's recent decision to offer far more undergraduate students the opportunity to minor in business by taking online courses. For years, the demand for a minor in business outstripped supply. "Now, we have used technology to meet a demand that has more than doubled the size of our business minor program because the courses are now offered online," explains Kevin Jackson, the associate dean of the undergraduate program. "It had been running about 650 students. Now we have just under 1,600 business minors since making this available in 2019. I have had associate deans from different colleges say to me that you have made every degree on our campus more valuable because now they can couple it with a business minor. Students can now tell their parents that they have an opportunity to minor in business which helps the fine arts school and other schools because students now have something practical to fall back on."
An updated undergraduate curriculum has also led to the launch this year of the largest experiential learning course in the country. The required experience for juniors who major in business will match them with about 130 companies, startups, mid-sized businesses, and nonprofits. "Every student will have had a live client service project before they leave our college," says Jackson. "When you think about how students will have to navigate a contemporary business environment, it’s not merely about having the right answers. It’s often more important to ask the right questions. Having a live client based setting where the answers are often ambiguous requires students to ask the right questions. What Jeff has done is invested in a whole separate unit for experiential learning that is charged with identifying these clients and projects. That has been the big investment."
NEW CREDIT-BEARING PATHWAYS INTO DEGREE PROGRAMS
Taking preemptive steps to stake out the future, Brown has created new leadership positions and staffed them with professionals with unusual backgrounds and credentials. Chief Disruption Officer Robert Bruner has a PhD in astrophysics from Johns Hopkins and worked in the Illinois School of Information Science, the Department of Astronomy, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Among other things, he is now exploring AI-assisted software that could be used to translate the school’s 16,000 videos to other languages so that the college could reach learners all over the world in their native tongues. Chief Learning Officer Tawnya Means, who earned her PhD in Information Science and Learning Technologies from the University of Missouri-Columbia, is managing and directing the strategy in graduate and undergraduate teaching, lifelong learning, and teaching professional development for faculty and staff.
Yet, the biggest changes to fulfill his vision of the future of business education are most likely to occur in the online world. In August of next year, the school will offer a new credit bearing credential that will serve as a new pathway into the iMBA program. The first two, of what will be four graduate certificates, will be a trio of three-credit courses in digital marketing and in strategic leadership and management. Students can complete a certificate in 24 weeks, though the timeframe can be extended. Once completed, all 12 credits would stack into the iMBA if a student decides he or she wants more than a standalone credential, part of Gies’s strategy for life-long learning.
These changes are making waves and gaining still more applause for the dean. “We had very high expectations and he has exceeded them," says Joe White, the former president of the University of Illinois system until the end of 2009. "Jeff is driven by the values of a great public university - quality, access, affordability - as reflected in so many initiatives, including the iMBA. His future potential is unlimited: MIT PhD, great academic, pension expert, and a superlative dean in every aspect of the job."
A LOVE OF FAMILY, MOUNTAINS AND DARK CHOCOLATE
For the man whose Twitter feed proudly announces his love of family, mountains and dark chocolate, the future of education is an exciting place. When a manager needs a deep dive into business analytics or the impact of AI on marketing or operations, that person should be able to enroll in a series of credit-bearing online courses to get up-to-date while still holding onto their jobs. If business schools don't meet those needs, believes Brown, Google, LinkedIn and others gladly will.
Brown makes clear that the shift online has allowed the school's leadership to think big and expansively, opening up all kinds of new creative possibilities. "The switch online was a change in modality, but it forced us to think differently about education across the board," he says. "We started with degrees, but what we have started doing is breaking these degrees down into concentrations, certificates and modules. You realize that the degree is just a bunch of Lego blocks, and we can put them together so they are extremely valuable to people at certain points in their lives. And we have priced it at a level that truly makes it accessible. If you get rid of the geographic barrier as well as the financial barrier and you provide something that works around people’s busy family and work lives, you are adding enormous value to society. We are investing in it and making bets on it because that is where we think it is going."
Brown genuinely believes in the profound impact education can have on a person's life trajectory. "We need to take education to people when they need it and where they need it," he insists. "This idea that everyone is going to have the luxury or privilege of taking time out of the work force to spend time on a campus for a year, two years or four years is both an outdated notion and one that contributes to inequality. Our ability to take high quality content and deliver it anywhere in the world is world changing. You can’t exaggerate the impact that can have. We can really change lives."
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