Can a former Fortune 100 president lead the business school?

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of University of Delaware

John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil, is on a list of candidates for the business school's deanship, which is mostly filled by academics.

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of University of Delaware
John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil, is on a list of candidates for the business school’s deanship, which is mostly filled by academics.

As business faculty decide whether to put a former oil executive on the final list of candidates for dean, they will mull a bigger question: Can a former Fortune 100 president lead a school?

Four of the five candidates for the GW School of Business dean search boast extensive backgrounds in academia, from a senior vice dean who crafted top-ranked executive education programs to the dean of a school within the New York state system.

But John Hofmeister, the former chief executive of Shell Oil, stands out from the pile of C.V.s that list advanced degrees and research published in peer-reviewed journals. Instead, several faculty say he can offer his network of deep-pocketed corporate and political connections and experience earning the trust of analysts and shareholders of the public company he ran.

Hiring a former CEO poses a risk at a University where faculty have resisted top-down leadership styles. Faculty in the business school said they perceived former dean Doug Guthrie’s quick takeover of the school and ambitious goals as power grabs, and that he shut them out of decision making within the school.

If Hofmeister is selected as dean by University President Steven Knapp by next month, he would be the school’s first dean from outside of academia in nearly 20 years, joining a list of schools like Wake Forest, Northwestern and Boston universities that have chosen former executives as their business deans in the last four years.

Universities have looked to former CEOs to lead schools as deans’ roles have morphed from academic officer to fundraising chief. When Knapp came to GW in 2007, he called on deans to spend at least 40 percent of their time on fundraising.

The business school has also set out to find a donor to give it a name – a long-standing goal that would come with a price tag of at least $50 million. Guthrie, who was fired from the deanship in August and came to GW in 2010 from an academic post at New York University, wrote three years ago that the business school “must demonstrate that it is heading toward a top-20 ranking” to land a gift. He wrote that development officers pegged eight potential donors who could make that large of a donation, according to a budget plan obtained by The Hatchet.

Each candidate has met or will meet with top administrators, including Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Michael Morsberger.

A former CEO will have a large network of donors to appeal to, but former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said connections don’t guarantee fundraising success.

“It’s possible that you can be a businessman and know lots of people, but they have no interest in the George Washington University,” Trachtenberg said.

He pointed to David Fowler, former dean of the College of Professional Studies who came to GW from a large D.C. accounting firm. Trachtenberg said faculty were initially skeptical of Fowler, but by the end of his six-year term, they were disappointed to see the dean step down.

“You’re looking for talent, but it’s all over in different places. Sometimes it’s an academic that’s been very consequential or it’s someone in the business community,” Trachtenberg said.

The final two candidates will visit campus next week. Then the school’s search committee will narrow down its shortlist to three candidates, from which Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman will select the dean.

Hofmeister has spent several years teaching at Arizona State University, where he has focused on forming a national energy strategy. As a fellow at the Global Institute of Sustainability there, Hofmeister has connected faculty with colleagues in the energy sector for research and partnerships.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Duques Hall

Students have benefited from his professional experiences and relationships, the institute’s director Patricia Reiter said. She traveled to Georgia with him last year for a conference, where he discussed an energy security strategy.

Managing tenured professors could be a challenge for Hofmeister, a GW faculty member with knowledge of the conversations said, because experience in business might not translate to the right leadership skills at a school.

“If you’re leading in the corporate world, there’s an authority structure there. There isn’t the authority structure in academia,” the professor, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said.

John Byrne, editor in chief of the business school blog Poets and Quants, said at a school fraught with politics, a candidate with academic experience would likely have an easier transition into the post. But the former president of a large company like Shell Oil would be able to work well with others, Byrne said.

He said Hofmeister would need to convince the search committee that he can bring in large donations to make up for the deficits the school faces.

“A smart executive will focus on the things they will change, and potentially align themselves with powerful faculty and let them do the stuff they can’t change,” Byrne said.

Boston University has had Kenneth Freeman, former CEO of Ford Motor Company, as dean since 2010. Fred Foulkes, a professor of organizational behavior at the BU School of Management, said the dean has connected students to colleagues at top businesses and invites the CEOs of major corporations to campus for events several times a year.

If a candidate’s background is marked with executive posts, he or she has likely spent time lecturing on campuses or serving on university boards, which helps them understand how to work with faculty, Foulkes said. She added that a dean with executive experience must be aware that faculty want to have a say in decisions.

“You have to have reasonable confidence that they’re not so strong-willed or arrogant that they know all the answers,” Foulkes said. “They sometimes need to come in and listen and learn for the first 90 days.”

Hofmeister would join Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, and Mark Kennedy, director of the Graduate School of Political Management, as leaders of GW’s schools who started out in the professional world.

Sesno, who served as the Washington bureau chief at CNN before coming to GW, said he found it most difficult to adjust to a university’s organizational model, which requires leaders to work with tenured faculty and follow the mission of a nonprofit organization.

He said he had more leverage over his budget and the authority to hire or fire people without a check on his decisions as CNN’s Washington bureau chief. A collaborative leadership style, like bringing in faculty to reshape the school’s curriculum, helped him transition into seeking faculty input before making any decisions, he said.

“The most interesting thing about the academic leadership model is that as any good leader, one still has to be a leader. You have to have a sense of where you’re going and why you’re going there,” Sesno said.

– Jacqueline Thomsen and Chloé Sorvino contributed reporting.

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