Sanjay Sharma had his work set out for him when he assumed the role of dean of the University of Vermont’s business school back in July of 2011. The school, since renamed the Grossman School of Business, had an antiquated undergraduate business program that hadn’t been reexamined by faculty since 1974, and its reputation was practically nonexistent in the business school community. B-school recruiters bypassed the school during the traditional recruiting cycle, and the school’s alumni base, while large, was not engaged with the school. Its part-time evening MBA program was similarly neglected.
“My perspective was the program was great in 1974 and perhaps great for the next couple of decades after that, but the world has changed since then.” says Sharma. The business environment has changed, and students have changed, too, ”said Sharma. “We needed to bring the program up to date and cast the school into the future.”
It was a task that Sharma, who’d spent four years as dean of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, one of Canada’s largest business schools, was uniquely positioned to take on. During his stint as dean at Concordia, he’d raised more than $100 million for the school, increased its enrollment from 5,000 students to 8,800 students and helped raise the school’s stature in global rankings.
He sought to achieve similar outcomes for the University of Vermont’s business school, but on a smaller scale that was more in line with the needs and size of the state school.
A NEW VISION & CURRICULUM HAS WOKEN UP THE ONCE SLEEPY SCHOOL
He quickly got to work, setting up faculty committees to discuss the school’s existing disciplinary areas and how they could be transformed to be more relevant and dynamic for students. Six months later, the faculty came to him with a proposal for a new undergraduate program, rife with experiential learning opportunities and more focused and relevant concentrations for students. Faculty took a similar approach to the school’s generic MBA program, reworking it into a cutting-edge Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA developed with the help of such Vermont-friendly companies as Ben & Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. “The faculty felt included in the process, and took ownership of it,” adds Sharma..
The school’s brand new curriculum and vision has woken up the once sleepy school, and put it on the map, attracting the attention of Wall Street recruiters and the larger business community. Since the faculty proposals have been implemented, the school has grown its undergraduate enrollments from 700 to nearly 1000, while at the same time becoming more selective (the school has reduced its admit rate by 20 percentage points in the last five years). Even more encouraging, the job placement of undergraduates has gone from 45% back when Sharma started to a robust 95% within a year of graduation.
Poets&Quants’ recently spoke with Sharma in a wide-ranging interview about how he’s worked to get the school’s strong alumni base more engaged with the school over the last six years, helped raised $35 million for the school (including a $20 million naming gift from the Grossman Family Foundation in 2015) and the impact the business school’s first ever career services office is having on student’s job outcomes.
You were previously dean of the largest English-language business school in Canada. What was it about the University of Vermont that attracted you enough to make you leave that post?
I did one term as dean of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business in Montreal. Montreal is less than 100 miles from Burlington, Vermont, where the University of Vermont is, so I came down to Vermont fairly often. I fell in love with Vermont because it is beautiful and a great place to live. The business school was particularly attractive when headhunters called because I thought there was tremendous upside to the school. There was great faculty but I guess it did not have a reputation. The programs were outdated. They hadn’t been looked at for revision, and there’d been no change in the program for over 38 years. Nobody knew about the school. I thought the alumni base was very strong but not at all engaged. The business community wasn’t engaged, either. There was no experiential learning and the curriculum was very classroom and academic focused. I believe for applied schools like business, medicine and law, there should be a lot of experiential learning incorporated into the curriculum. I felt like I had done what I could at Concordia in terms of getting the programs ranked, building a new building for the school and increasing enrollment. I felt any additional contribution would be incremental. The University of Vermont was a place where I felt I could have a lot of impact.
There was clearly a lot of work that needed to be done to improve the business school when you arrived. How did you go about convincing faculty that the school needed to move in a different direction?
My approach — and this is the way I do things coming from business — is that there is a total different dynamic of decision making between business and academia. In business, it is quick decision making and you hope you make more right decisions than wrong decisions, and you make more right decisions that have an upside versus wrong decisions that have an upside. Speed is very critical, and it is very hierarchical and top down.
In academia, it is a shred governance model. That is something I figured out. I’ve been in academia for 24 years now, so my approach as dean always is very inclusive because I strongly believe that it is better to take the time to arrive at the right decision because implementation becomes very easy when you make the right decisions. If you make the wrong decision and are not inclusive, it gets mired down and never gets implemented, and the decision or strategy is pointless if you can’t implement it.
My approach was to create ad hoc committees that represented different disciplinary areas and charge them to look at existing programs and see how we could transform them and position them for the next 100 years. The last time the program was looked at was 1974. We needed to bring it up to date and ask what will the next 20 or 30 years look like. We benchmarked against the most innovative programs and talked to employers, students, alums and the business community and got a feel for the way to go.
I’d meet with the faculty every month and give them my perspective on what was new in the management education world, and they’d tell me what they’d found out. Every month we’d give a presentation to faculty and get faculty input. Six months later, we were ready with a proposal for the program. It was a unanimous vote from the faculty. They felt included in the process as they had provided input and they felt they took ownership over the entire process.