Corey Jacobson: Doug Guthrie puts the George Washington School of Business at the center of it all

Here’s a joke: the GW School of Business hired a new dean last spring who holds no business degrees.

The thing is, it’s not a joke and it might be the best move the GWSB has made in a long time.

During the three years I’ve spent as a student in the School of Business, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated that it has failed to capitalize on its prime D.C. location, at the intersection of business and policy. After all, the school proudly boasts its slogan, “At the center of it all.” The irony of a business school using misleading advertising aside, the mantra has served merely for marketing purposes.

So when Doug Guthrie was hired as new GWSB dean, I was dumbfounded. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Guthrie holds a A.B. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in organizational sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. In many ways, he seems to defy the conventional credentials of a business school dean – the only thing that could make him any more of an unusual choice is if he knew how to rock out on the guitar (he does). But Guthrie has a simple explanation for how his social sciences experience is useful in the business world. He has said in an interview that he “believes in looking at the world in a complex way.”

While the current trend of business schools is to narrow their focus, Guthrie said that we need to broaden our curriculum to teach business in the context of society, to show how markets interact with social and political systems.

But his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and his supposed desire to change the direction of the GWSB by taking advantage of our location seems refreshingly genuine – and both faculty and students are lined up in support behind him.

“In the past, we’ve looked at improving the School of Business as a marketing issue as opposed to what kind of school it is,” Professor Howard Beales, who has served under four previous deans since he began teaching here in 1988, said. “What I’ve seen Dean Guthrie saying is, ‘If we want to market that, we have to be that.’ No one has ever had a clear vision of how to do it, but he certainly does.”

Fundamentally, there are two ways the dean can alter the course of the GWSB: directly, by hiring professors and pushing the right kind of curriculum and incentives for students; and indirectly, by leading the school with his passion and leadership. While only time will tell about the former, Guthrie has clearly started thinking about what needs to change. When I asked him about internships, he noted there is an ongoing debate among business schools about whether offering a credit-for-internship option will be a disincentive for a firm to pay its interns. When I asked him about encouraging GW business students to study a foreign language or study abroad, he mentioned the idea of a mandatory semester abroad.

GWSB saw many great changes under former Dean Susan Phillips. It placed a newfound emphasis on faculty research, acquired a beautiful new building – one that admittedly factored into my own interest in the school – and consequently raised the caliber of its incoming students.

Now, GWSB is turning over a new leaf. Guthrie has the tremendous opportunity to build a school around the vision of finally capitalizing on its potential. With his fresh approach to energizing the school, suddenly increasing the school’s rankings doesn’t seem like an impossible feat. And with a business degree-less dean, maybe that’s the punch line.

-The writer is a senior majoring in business.

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