Dean’s Q&A: Lynn Wooten, Cornell’s Dyson

Lynn Wooten is Dean of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Courtesy photo

Out of the eight prestigious institutions that make up the Ivy League, Cornell University is one of two that offer an undergraduate program in business. Sitting at the helm, overseeing the Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management, is Lynn Wooten.

Wooten assumed the Dyson deanship position one year ago, continuing a decades-long career in academia that has included 19 years as a faculty member of management, first at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business followed by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business which is her alma mater. In the six years prior to joining Dyson, she served the dean’s suite as associate dean of Ross’s undergraduate business programs.

By her own account, Wooten herself is a long-time consumer of higher education and business education. She recalls her own experience as an undergraduate accounting student and life as a PhD business student to now, years later, having a son who’s completed Cornell’s Hotel School of Administration and a daughter who’s currently exploring colleges and universities to attend. Because of these personal experiences, Wooten’s outlook on the Cornell’s Dyson School remains big picture. Her goal as dean? “I want to make sure they have a thriving experience that is truly transformational,” she tells Poets&Quants for Undergrads in a one-on-one interview. This includes a personalized experience for every student who enters as well as ensuring a level playing field for each student.

But there’s more. Dyson — ranked 9th among Poets&Quants’ Best Undergraduate Business Programs — is a small program known for its astonishingly low acceptance rate. On her list of things the school can get better at doing? Growing the program and getting students to think beyond finance, marketing, and consulting — what she calls the big three.

See the below interview that includes what Dyson looks for in prospective students, Dean Wooten’s thoughts on the school’s low acceptance rate, and why she feels it shouldn’t discourage students from applying to Dyson.

P&Q: As the new undergraduate business program dean, what are the top priorities for the program in your view?

Wooten: To get people to understand who we are. Our mission is to rigorously train students in analytics, while developing students who want to change the world. A part of this is getting faculty and staff to execute this vision. Third, is creating a transformational learning experience. With us being a small school, we can have a personal design experience for each student who enters.

Dean Wooten helps celebrate members of Dyson’s graduating Class of 2018. Courtesy photo.

P&Q: What’s the one thing you think Dyson can become better at doing?

Wooten: Definitely how do we grow our program? Also, I think there’s always room to have students think about careers beyond the traditional big three: finance, marketing, and consulting.

We have to be intentional with students from the beginning. The world is your oyster with a business degree so how do we get students to think beyond the big three and consider going into government jobs, nonprofits, etcetera?

P&Q: Dyson is known to have a low acceptance rate, do you think this discourages students from applying?

Wooten: It was something similar when I was at Michigan with business being the number one major and the demand for business education being so high. Here, you take only two Ivies with majors in business — Cornell and Penn — and the demand is even higher. Each year, I take 90 freshmen, then I can expand the sophomore class by taking in another 90 transfers.

I don’t want people to be discouraged. I say that, by applying, you have nothing to lose. We do have plans or intentions to expand the program. It’s taking a while because Cornell guarantees freshman housing. Once we build more dorms — in a perfect world — we’ll be expanding the business program.

But there are multiple ways to pursue business education at a top school. Though we may have 750 students, you can also minor in business. We have a robust minor. One for pre-med, one for engineering, and we have a leadership minor.

P&Q: What does Dyson look for in prospective students?

Wooten: We do a comprehensive, holistic review. Of course the academics matter, test scores, and grades, but what’s just as important is: ‘Why Cornell?’ What will you contribute to the Dyson community? I want to know who the person is. What makes them stand out and what is their story? If they’re coming to business school because they want to be a nonprofit leader, can they tell that story and tell it consistently?

The canned applications are not what I’m looking for. We want to know not only who are you as a leader, but who you are as a learner. I’m looking for students who present themselves as learners and can communicate who they are and what they can contribute.

P&Q: If there’s one common trait about Dyson students, what would that be?

Wooten: A passion for learning and a passion for understanding everyone can be a leader. Maybe the biggest trait, though, is their work ethic. They work very hard here.

P&Q: Describe the culture at Dyson.

Wooten: I think the culture is very entrepreneurial. It’s also a ‘work hard’ culture and a ‘lift as we climb’ culture. There’s a lot of peer mentoring here. Students think a lot about leaving their legacy in a way that says, ‘I got through this and now I want to help someone else get through it.’

P&Q: What’s happening at the school right now that has you excited?

Wooten: I’m excited about the summer read we’re doing with incoming freshmen and transfer students dealing with a lot of things happening in society right now: immigration, social, and economic disparities. We want students to see fiction as a genre. Behold the Dreamers is the title of the book. Our upcoming theme this year is ‘From Dream to Design’ and we’re going to have the author on campus in the fall.

I’m excited about how we think about and conceptualize diversity as an experience in and out of the classroom. The book we’re reading addresses that topic too. Something I’ve seen evolve over time is diversity moves beyond race and gender. There’s first generation, sexual orientation, all types of diversity.

On another note, Dyson has been very good at integrating liberal arts with business. I’m excited about continuing to help students make sense of that integration.

Another thing that excites me is Dyson by Design. This initiative is where we have students become intentional about their curricular and co-curricular activities to put out this transformational experience. What will my Cornell Dyson experience be like? What clubs do I want to be involved in?

Finally, I’m excited about our new leadership development curriculum. We’re starting the first pilot this year for this comprehensive leadership program. Leadership is not a position, but an every day choice about how I show up and contribute to a community. This is my research area, so that’s also why I’m excited about it. 

There’s also going to be a campus-wide leadership minor.

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