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Georgetown McDonough’s Dean: 4 Ambitious Goals For The Next 5 Years

·23 min read

Paul Almeida has been at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business since 1995. On August 1 he began his second term as dean. Georgetown photo

Paul Almeida wasn’t sure he wanted a second term as dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

In fact, he says, he wasn’t sure he even wanted a first one.

But something changed as Georgetown grappled with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Almeida, who had risen to the deanship in 2017 after more than 20 years teaching strategy and innovation, began to think differently about what could be accomplished at a business school that sits at the center of political power in Washington, D.C.

He saw a world of possibilities.

“It’s been a fairly good five years — I really mean it,” says Almeida, whose second term as dean began August 1. “We’ve had very good vice deans who really take on much of the internal work, especially related to faculty and programs. That’s really been helpful to me. I’ve always believed in fairly flat structures and I think that’s worked well during Covid, where there’s so much happening in so many different places, so people take authority and responsibility and make good things happen.

“To some extent Covid, though challenging — especially for undergraduate students — was not a bad experience because we also learned a lot. We learned a lot about the way technology works and doesn’t work. And we learned a lot about limitations and possibilities.”

BUSINESS AS A FORCE FOR GOOD: ‘PART OF OUR DNA’

Georgetown McDonough’s Paul Almeida. McDonough photo

Paul Almeida joined Georgetown McDonough in 1996 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. A professor of strategy and international business, he taught undergraduate, MBA, and executive students at Georgetown for more than 20 years. In 2010, as deputy dean for executive education and innovation, he assumed oversight of the McDonough School’s Innovation Initiative, which prioritized integrating Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit values into the school — a mission that has informed the many initiatives of his deanship, as well.

As dean, Almeida has seen the McDonough School become a leader in one of the most important movements in graduate business education — the embrace of sustainability. The school offers a long list of courses and degree programs focused on environmental sustainability in the context of business, from the Sustainable Business Fellows Program for undergraduates to a new M.S. in Environmental and Sustainability Management that welcomes its first students this fall and an MBA Certificate in Sustainable Business. Last year the school launched the Business of Sustainability Initiative, an umbrella for coursework focused on sustainability “within the context of business” through learning, thought leadership, and leveraging the school’s location by bringing together stakeholders in business, policy, and academia.

“Everyone talks about purpose now and everyone talks about business as a force for good,” Almeida says. “But that’s a part of our DNA, the idea of values and the idea of business serving the common good. I truly believe if we do business right, it can be the best solution to the world’s problems — not just economic problems, but social problems.

“Especially given our status, especially given our relationships, not just in the U.S. but in the Middle East or in South America — more than any other school, maybe in the world, we have an opportunity to actually influence and change approaches and policies and get people thinking.”

Q&A WITH GEORGETOWN McDONOUGH DEAN PAUL ALMEIDA

The McDonough School’s leadership hasn’t been confined to sustainability, as important an arena as it is. As dean, Almeida has overseen the launch of several new degree programs, including a B.S. in Business and Global Affairs, Georgetown’s first joint undergraduate degree that is managed with the School of Foreign Service. McDonough also has launched an M.S. in Management and an online M.S. in Business Analytics, and created a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) pathway in the MBA program. He has stewarded such major undertakings as the AI, Analytics, and the Future of Work Initiative, and he appointed the school’s first Standing Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, in addition to launching numerous other diversity-related initiatives. He also launched an alumni mentorship program, PILLARS, designed to partner with alumni, parents, and other friends of Georgetown to bring real-world experiences and learning opportunities to the classroom through guest speakers, case studies, events, mentorship, and more.

It’s been a busy five years. What will the next half-decade look like at Georgetown McDonough under Almeida’s leadership? Even busier.

Three days before the official start of his second go-round as dean, he shared his vision for the future over lunch in a conference room in the B-school’s Rafik B. Hariri Building in the center of the Georgetown campus. It includes new degree programs and the possibility of a new international campus, among many other projects. The bottom line is that he’s not taking anything off the table. “Maybe it’s just like I’m trying to fulfill the dream I had when I joined in ’96, but what the hell? They can’t stop me now!” he says with characteristic good humor.

Below is the transcript of P&Q‘s interview, edited for length and clarity.

Poets&Quants: Congratulations on your second term. 

Paul Almeida: I never knew whether I’d want a second term. I didn’t even know whether I wanted the first term! But that’s different. But in spite of Covid and I think largely thanks to our team — and I mean this sincerely, I know it’s the kind of thing people say — I think we’re a unique school where people kind of try to support each other, kind of try to look after each other, tend not to complain too much, which is quite something during Covid.

It’s been a fairly good five years. I really mean it. We’ve had very good vice deans who really take on much of the internal work, especially related to faculty and programs. That’s really been helpful to me. I’ve always believed in fairly flat structures and I think that’s worked well during Covid, where there’s so much happening in so many different places, so people take authority and responsibility and make good things happen. To some extent Covid, though challenging — especially for undergraduate students — was not a bad experience because we also learned a lot. We learned a lot about the way technology works and doesn’t work and the limitations and the possibilities.

P&Q: Do you think that it helped accelerate certain things like hybridization of programs? Because there’s some question about that, whether those things were already going to be adopted.

Definitely. If you think about it, we were, at least within the university, one of the leaders in doing online stuff because we started a Master of Science in Finance online eight years ago, which I think may have been the first premium online program. We charged just as much — actually more — per credit than our face-to-face program, so we made a commitment to give them a rich learning experience and a rich interactive experience, and we did that. We bring them a week here, we take them a week in South Africa.

I remember when I sold the idea to the then-dean, he said, “Paul, what do you mean by premium online? It just doesn’t mix,” and I said, “No, because what we’re trying to do is use technology effectively to enhance the learning experience, not substitute for some.” I think we did it. Then we had taken some of it into the MBA program, etc., but if you think about it, what percentage of our professors or what percentage of our courses were actually using technology effectively in some hybrid way? The answer was not that many, maybe 30%. Covid forced everyone to get at least a base level. I don’t want to say it reached that level of sophistication because for that you have to prepare well beforehand, you have to figure out what materials are going to be asynchronous, what are going to synchronous. That’s a whole different matter. But it allowed everyone to at least delve into this remote learning environment.

P&Q: Even the most reluctant faculty members.

Even the 80-plus-year-olds!

Paul Almeida: “One of the things we want to do is become unequivocally the number one in global business in the world.”

P&Q: Solely in terms of resilience and pushing the technology, it’s been an eventful couple of years at Georgetown McDonough.

Yep! But you know what happened which I’m very proud of? What really worked here is, the professors had these groups that got together, and they taught each other, they transferred best practices, and this was amazing. “This works and this doesn’t work, and this is what you’ll have to change and this is what is working office hours.” They did this week after week, throughout the whole summer of 2020.

Nothing I could have come up with would’ve substituted for that, so I think it changed — in addition to the skills — it changed the mindset about what technology could permit us to do. I’m grateful for that. What I am not so thrilled about was, I don’t think anyone really fully realized the level to which, especially undergrads, struggle when they’re not supporting each other, they’re not around each other. Not that we could have done anything about it. We did what we could, but a lot of them struggled deeply. Even the day before yesterday, I was talking to someone and she said she felt isolated and the thought of going online began to prey on her.

At the other end of the spectrum, the executives actually could embrace it, so we know where we’re going in the future is to emphasize more on the graduate level and executive level, because they can handle it. Given their busy lives, they actually prefer some aspects of it. For instance, our executive MBA program, instead of meeting twice a month for two weeks is going to meet once a month for three days, with more online. So Covid gave us some of the nuances of interpreting technology and intensive education to our programs, to different sets of students. If you think about it, without Covid how long would we have taken?

P&Q: So there’ll be an emphasis in that direction at Georgetown in the next five years?

Yeah. Let me tell you the four things I want to do. I’ve been at Georgetown forever, as you probably know. It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re talking to these kids and you realize none of them were even remotely born when I started here in 1996.

The first thing, I came here from Wharton because of its reputation in global business in general, but also in advanced international relations. One of the things we want to do is become unequivocally the number one in global business in the world. If you think about it, D.C. is a great place to do this because we have the School of Foreign Service. We’ve had this great tradition of global business, but how do we take it to the next level? We already started doing some things. We have a joint degree with the School of Foreign Service that we are going to announce very soon and a joint degree with Georgetown College in International Business, Language and Culture. The degree with Foreign Service allows you to look at multinational enterprises operating across countries, understanding how you leverage your expertise. How do you take advantage of the differences across countries? What if you want to go deeply and say, “I really want to understand Spain really well and how the history and the institutions and the language and the culture interact richly with business”? Well, you go to Catalonia in Spain, and you can see the whole different way of doing things, which is so deeply embedded in who they are.

Sometimes with economics, we tend to ignore that importance of place and identity and ways of doing things and language. The College will allow students to go deep into a particular region, provided they have the language skills and understand international business from that perspective. What we’re trying to do is not say students have to do A or B, but we want to give them choices. If they don’t want to do that, they can still do an international business major. But even there, we’re going to introduce a more regular track, which talks more about how to get work done or a track which relates international business to policy. Then if they don’t want to even do that, we have something called the Global Business Fellows. We’re trying to do these sets of activities across our programs to give students the choices, including experiential opportunities, which were already pretty high up — 70% of our students do this stuff already. But how do we take it to 100% level?

We’re also looking at the possibility of having a bit of a campus in Dubai. I want students, but also faculty and staff, to be able to see the world from someone else’s eyes. It’s really important to walk in someone else’s shoes. If I have to choose one place in the world to do global business from, I’d still choose D.C., but we don’t have to choose one place in the world. Hopefully at some stage we will have something in Asia as well, further beyond the Middle East. It’s about opportunities for exposure and understanding and interaction, so we can be a truly global business school in that sense as well.

I think the global business thing is one and I’m going to do it. Maybe it’s just like, I’m trying to fulfill the dream I have when I joined in ’96, but what the hell? They can’t stop me now!

The second thing is, we’ve done remarkably well in terms of our research, but we are still in some ways not quite up there with some of the top research places. But if you want to keep attracting the top faculty, you have to really be able to, because now we’re competing at different level. We think of ourselves differently. We’re not thinking of our MBA, I think Poets&Quants has our MBA ranked 23rd, but most of our programs are ranked in the top 10 and that accounts for most of our students. We now have near 3,000 students. How do we take faculty research to the next level, but again, in a way that can be useful to academia and useful to the world? We’re looking at various options, we’re examining the possibility of a Ph.D. I don’t think that’s necessarily the way to go, but we’re looking at it, but there are other ways.

How do we think of being able to look at big issues which matter to humanity better? That could be integrative with economics or government or policy or other areas. We’re examining the possibilities of pre-docs and post-docs or visiting scholars . So that’ll be a whole second thing.

The third thing is one of the reasons I came here: It’s a Jesuit school. One could say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Everyone talks about purpose now and everyone talks about business as a force for good. But that’s a part of our DNA, the idea of values and the idea of business serving the common good. I truly believe if we do business right, it can be the best solution to the world’s problems — not just economic problems, but social problems.

P&Q: That’s what everybody’s talking about now, but for you it’s been there since the beginning.

Exactly. It’s a part of who we are. But how do we actually embed those Jesuit values even more deeply? Not just into programs, but into the culture, into the ethos. For instance, one thing we’re doing is we have first-year seminars on a variety of subjects in the small classes. All of them are going to do a social project, not just where they say, “I’ll solve your problems for you,” but they experience them. Now, again, walking in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world in someone else’s eyes, examining how business and management can solve bigger problems — I think that is so much a part of who we are.

But also how do we create a culture that actually emphasizes these values so that when you’re angry, you don’t just send nasty letters to someone? How do you actually reflect it in the clubs even more? Of course, we have Net Impact and the others. That’s a journey I think we’ll take and society will reward us for it and the students will reward us for it. Because every kid — literally every kid, and I meet quite a lot of prospective kids — says they want to do well for themselves and well for the world. This was not true 10 years ago. It’s very encouraging. Thank God, right?

Especially given our status, especially given our relationships, not just in the U.S. but in the Middle East or in South America — more than any other school, maybe in the world, we have an opportunity to actually influence and change approaches and policies and get people thinking. I see that as our responsibility — that there’s no other great Jesuit business school with this deep potential. We just have to take advantage of it.

What that means is a number of processes and systems, not just programs.

P&Q: And the fourth goal for the next five years?

As you know, we’ve chosen five things we call “fields of the future.” If you think of academia, generally, they think, “I’m a finance professor. I have to do well in my field. I have to publish in the top three journals and I have to keep climbing my little ladder.” Sometimes the danger is, we can talk mostly to ourselves and we go to the top conferences and that’s where the incentives are. The danger is, we will tend to teach therefore what we know rather than what the students need to know. I don’t think this is a small challenge; it’s a big challenge. We can have very smart, decent, dedicated people whose incentives are not fully aligned with the interests of our students.

It’s not something we can change overnight, so what are we trying to do? So we said, “Okay, how can we actually change this? Let’s acknowledge how academia works and let’s also see how we can.” We chose five fields, which we think are going to impact the students and reflect our values of serving the common good. We said, “We create a kind of matrix. Faculty can hopefully still belong to their departments and areas and stuff, but we will have initiatives which incentivize faculty, students, staff, to do more work, to get more exposed, to understand these contexts, to get data which will be useful for their research.”

We’ve chosen business and global affairs. It’s reminding us that business doesn’t exist in ether, but has value in its association with law and medicine and policy. How do you solve the Covid problems? You have to understand the interactions, and this is very Georgetown. How do we embrace that in terms of our student projects, in terms of our internships, in terms of our programs, in terms of the co-curricular stuff? Second is the business of sustainability. One thing I want to say is, we are trying really carefully not to be making the moral case by itself. Lots of people are making the moral case and there is a moral case, but we want to try to understand where the business case exists and doesn’t exist and where it falls down.

P&Q: Because there will be a great number of people for whom that’s how you reach them.

Also, even beyond people, it’s the way institutions are structured that will push us relentlessly in a direction where that logic makes sense. If we can change the logic, the institution’s natural momentum will push them in the direction we want to push them. It’s not just about individuals or even leadership. It’s about how corporations are structured and incentivized. If we can understand where the case exists, where it doesn’t exist — it’s very important to acknowledge that, where it doesn’t exist. What will it take to overcome it? Then I think we can create real sustainable sustainability.

I really think that is a fairly unique approach. I keep telling them, look at where the business case almost clashes, because if we don’t acknowledge that, we’re just pretending. That’s our challenge. Even with AI and the future of work, it’s not just saying, “AI is going to dehumanize us and take over all our jobs.” A lot of people can and should study it. What we’re trying to say is, “What does this mean in terms of solving the common good? What does it mean in terms of individuals, where we’re unique?”

Paul Almeida: “Everyone talks about purpose now and everyone talks about business as a force for good. But that’s a part of our DNA, the idea of values and the idea of business serving the common good.”

P&Q: So much of the discussion around entrepreneurship is how to be prepared to fail. What are your plans for Georgetown’s entrepreneurship curriculum?

I think in a dynamic, inherently uncertain world, our kids need to learn how to take risk differently and view the future and possibilities differently and learn how to fail and pick themselves up and keep walking. We have to prepare them for that, so I’d seriously like to do a course where at least at the midterm level, they all think they’re failing and have to still figure out the way ahead.

Business schools don’t teach them how to fail. I am especially thinking of the kids who’ve come here, 73% or some huge percentage, I’m not sure, are valedictorians. They have no concept of if something doesn’t happen quite to their expectations, what to do. “The world’s falling down!” Oh, you didn’t get the Goldman Sachs job? “There is no future in life!” That kind of thing. That’s not going to be what we should be teaching them. We need to be teaching them to enter unexplored landscapes and figure some of it out while they’re going and be able to work with incomplete information — and not say, “I’ll do the perfect analysis and now I’ll act.” Even the mindset for managers in big industry is going to have to change, let alone startups, again for the common good.

Another program we are looking into, and we haven’t started but we’ve identified the person we want to launch it, is the business of health. As you know, health is a huge business whether we like it or not, and let’s face it, could do with a lot of business and management and leadership thinking in healthcare.

What we’re trying to do is in these areas — sustainability, health, entrepreneurialism — have a master’s program as well. Why? Because that’ll straightaway change the conversations. We hire more faculty in these areas. They still might be from finance or strategy or marketing, but as dedicated to health or as dedicated to technology or as dedicated to sustainability. What we’re in fact creating is a matrix. Of course, I’m not taking away any of the traditional disciplines because that extends way beyond me. It extends to all the top schools of the world. But I can allow and encourage people to think of themselves differently so that simultaneously they focus on what students will need, and I think that melding will take place over the next five years and it’s already started.

P&Q: That’s more than enough to keep you busy.

I hope it is, because otherwise I lose interest.

P&Q: So once this five years is over then back to the classroom full time?

Yes. Definitely. I promise you that.

I’ll tell you something. About three years and three months into my term, they asked me to write something to be considered for renewal. I think they were trying to hurry it on and I said, “It’s really early.” “Just write up anything.” Then I said, “I have to think about what I want for the future.” I’m now in my late-50s, it was my middle-50s then and I thought about it and I said, “I love my job. I believe totally in what I’m doing here, but I’ll always wonder, should I have been a university president? Should I not?” I applied to two places, I reached the finals in both, I was offered the job in one and I told them honestly that I’m not sure whether I want the job or not. I’m checking myself and fit and so on. Then I realized I didn’t really want that. I like this job. I like the location. I like the school. I like being dean because of the interaction with students, and I didn’t want to deal with some issues presidents deal with.

I just feel alive over here. I know that’s selfish, but I felt I could be most useful here. My wife wasn’t too keen on moving, to tell you the truth. We talked about it and I said, “I’ll do five more years because we are on this trajectory that I really believe in.” There were eight deans in the 20 years before I took over, and I said, “There’s too much turnover. A new person would come in, try to do something, leave, then we’d have a one-year gap to interim.” I said, “We didn’t make enough progress because of that,” so just to have that continuity, it’s important. But I love teaching. I’ve got some good ideas. I don’t have the capabilities, but I have some good ideas for future research.

I’d like to do a little more other stuff as well. Maybe finally play some real golf! I don’t know. I think I actually will be a very happy faculty member, but I’m glad I went through that process of saying, “Do I want to be a president? Do I want that thing?” And I discovered I didn’t and my wife didn’t, more to the point.

DON’T MISS: HOW GEORGETOWN BECAME A LEADER IN SUSTAINABILITY or TO RANK OR NOT TO RANK: DEANS’ CONCLAVE DEBATES MERITS OF B-SCHOOL RANKINGS

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