Pushed by ambitious agenda, Guthrie takes fall

Two months before Doug Guthrie stepped foot in the GW School of Business dean’s office, he already pledged to propel the college to top 25 in the country.

Guthrie, who was hired away from a faculty position at New York University three years ago, had big plans to triple the number of endowed professors, build up a fledgling executive education program and expand to China – all while the college faced a financial deficit.

“The word ‘hubris’ – with a capital H – fits this situation,” said Pradeep Rau, a marketing professor who briefly served as interim dean before Guthrie took over.

University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman fired Guthrie from his deanship Thursday and forced him to step down from his role as vice president of China operations.

Just three years after Guthrie was brought in to shake up the then-No. 55-ranked business school by pumping in revenue and raising its international profile, the 44-year-old was brought down by the school’s $13 million in overspending last year on academic programs that were offered online and to aspiring business executives.

The crash was hard and abrupt. Knapp and Lerman had elevated Guthrie to one of GW’s top spots this spring because of his work as GW’s key figurehead and negotiator in China. (Guthrie is fluent in Mandarin and a Chinese economic development expert.) He earned one of the highest salaries at GW in fiscal year 2012, pulling in $532,464 in total compensation.

The massive overspending – about a quarter of the business school’s more than $50 million spending budget – is emblematic of a dean who took on too much, too quickly, some professors say. That ambition was rewarded by Knapp and the Board of Trustees, who approved a $9.4 million budget expansion over five years to grow academic programs in the business school.

The college promptly launched an executive MBA program for former athletes that generated buzz and a New York Times feature, and started another executive program that held classes at the Four Seasons Hotel and boasted “five-star accommodations.” Expanded offerings for students taking classes online also followed.

“Too many balls were thrown in the air at one time,” Rau said. “The man was in such a hurry, and unfortunately, I think Rice Hall bought into it. That’s where the problem started.”

Professors and administrators also praised Guthrie for trying to put big ideas and progressive programs in place, pushing an academic focus on ethics and crossing business education with liberal arts. But rankings slumps, poor student ratings, faculty discontent and a failure to raise money to fund star professors put a cloud over that success.

“We’re not on the right track now. We need to get on the track, and make the student experience here as valuable as possible. Do that first, and then I think we grow into a better school,” said tourism studies professor Douglas Frechtling.

Lerman said in an interview Friday that he did not think Guthrie’s error indicated a “failure in strategy.”

“He came in with an ambitious vision and a strategy to implement it. I actually still believe in that vision and strategy,” Lerman said. “I think this problem comes around to a point of execution and disagreements about how to modify the execution in the face of the fiscal issues.”

Guthrie also inherited a financial hole when he entered the deanship in 2010, taking over for Susan Phillips, who oversaw the 2006 completion of the business school building Duques Hall. But Guthrie said he racked up record fundraising years, and managed to convince University officials to give the college back more of its own revenue.

“The idea that we could just continue to do what we do and not change is ridiculous,” Guthrie said in an interview last December. “I was not only brought here with a mandate of making us into an elite school, but I have a responsibility to this school and this University to build a foundation for the future. That means we have to make some hard decisions.”

Guthrie did not return requests to comment last week.

His deanship was also marked by administrative turnover, including that of his second-in-command Murat Tarimcilar, who stepped down as vice dean for programs last summer.

Some said Guthrie’s lack of administrative experience led to his downfall. Guthrie, who was a professor of sociology and management at NYU, came to GW without any major administrative experience under his belt.

Frechtling, who sat on the dean search committee that picked Guthrie as one of the final three candidates in 2010, said Knapp could have picked a candidate who served as an associate dean at another business school.

A dean needs “strong management experience,” Frechtling said. “Doug Guthrie had a lot of strengths, but he had never been a department chair, he had never managed a program in his life larger than executive education at NYU.”

– Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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