Dean’s Q&A: David Platt of University of Texas

David Platt of UT-Austin

David Platt of UT-Austin

The undergraduate business program at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business is one of the crown jewels of the state research university. Each year thousands of students in the state scramble to get a coveted seat in the program, which receives more than 7,000 applications a year for about 4,000 seats. Overseeing this large and growing program is David Platt, associate dean for undergraduate programs at McCombs, who took the helm at the school in June of 2012 after nearly two decades teaching undergraduate and graduate business students at the school.

Platt, a certified public accountant who holds a PhD degree in accounting from Cornell University, has spent the last two years crafting a fresh vision and direction for the business school, which includes a heavy emphasis on new learning technologies, leadership programs and active learning classrooms.  He’s hoping that will help him lay the groundwork for an upcoming renovation of the building school planned in the next couple of years, he says.

So far, he is relishing the chance to work closely with undergraduate students, a group amongst his favorite to teach at the school, he said.

“They’re at a point in their life where they’re becoming adults and getting not only a business education but a broader liberal arts education,” he said. “We can have a big effect on the trajectory of their life if we do this right. That’s an appealing proposition and position to be in,” he said.

Under Platt’s leadership, the school’s reputation and stature in the undergraduate business school community has grown. The program has steadily climbed up in Bloomberg Businessweek’s ranking of undergraduate business programs, jumping to sixth place this year, up from ninth place in 2013 and seventeenth place is 2012.

Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast recently spoke with Platt about his vision for the school in the next few years, the challenges that come with being a state school and why he believes a degree from McCombs is a good value proposition for students.

What’s your background, and what have you done at the school

I’m new to the dean world, I’ve been at this job about two years, as of June 1st. I’ve been on the accounting faculty here for 18 years. I spent the last ten years directing the Center for International Business Education and Research, which in addition to accounting has been a strong focus. I’m a late bloomer in this industry. CPA

I was attracted to the deanship because I’ve taught all different kinds of courses in the undergraduate, MBA and executive MBA programs. I’ve always really enjoyed working with undergraduates. I’ve raised kids through that age, so feel I’m not totally lost. I’m at an important point in my life where I believe I can make a big impact on them, more so then with MBAs. I think everyone agrees there is a lot of value in MBA programs in areas like networking, creating contacts for the future and changing career path directions. I think it is a whole different proposition for undergraduates. They’re at a point in their life where they’re becoming adults, getting not only a business education but a broader liberal arts education and we can have a big effect on the trajectory of their life if we do this right. That’s an appealing proposition and position to be in.

I’m excited I’ve getting to the two-year mark. I’ve found in prior jobs that are complex like this, it takes three years before you really feel comfortable. My contacts around the university have improved a lot, and that’s important because in undergraduate education you are much more interdependent.

What are some of the challenges unique to running a large undergraduate business program at a state university?

We’ve really focused on the quality of the program, including defining what we represent and contribute to the world of business. The word we are using lately is “impact” and to me that reflects a combination of quality and size. Of course we have to look at size being a big state university. It is a constraint, but a constraint we can turn to our advantage. We have to be big, we don’t have the luxury of being a tiny program like other ones.  It does constrain us in some ways but what it does allow us to do, on the other hand, is give us an advantage in working with employers. We are highly valued as a source of well-trained students in the job market.

Last year for our alumni, we graphed out a lot of the top programs according to how big they are, and how well they are ranked according to quality and prestige. If you do that, you only find two programs that fall into the big school, high-ranking quadrant, Wharton and us. That’s good company to play in, so we are happy with that. Especially when you later on lay out what it costs for a year at Wharton and a year for us. We all represent different business models in a sense. Our business model is a high impact model. We are a very good program that produces a lot of students who feed into the business world, and on top of that, we do this at a relatively low cost as a state school. We’re in a different niche, and that puts us in unique place among the top ten other big high-quality programs.

Does a degree in undergraduate business really pay off? What is the value proposition for students?

That is such a hot topic here when we go out on the road to recruit students, or talk to parents here. The McCombs program is an economical one; it costs between $10,000 and $11,000 for tuition. That is a pretty modest number when you compare it to private schools and public schools. I think they are getting good value for their money.  Meanwhile, students who graduate here have a starting salary between $50,000 and $60,000.   At our school, the average student loan for a student who has even any debt is just under $25,000, and 65 percent of students have no student loan debt at all. That really surprised me because it is not at all what I expected. I’m hoping that this is a better than normal story here.

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