Dean’s Q&A: Idie Kesner, Indiana Kelley

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What does Kelley do to help students find balance?

Our school is very focused on the mental wellness of our students. It’s a key part of our undergraduate education and we started down this journey about three years ago. We’ve noticed that sometimes, students are not only overstressed, but they’re also expecting perfectionism from themselves. That striving places undue pressure on students today. We have focused our efforts on providing opportunities for them to destress and encourage them to think about their emotional wellness.

It may seem strange since mental wellness doesn’t seem like a business topic, but finding balance is a life-skill meant to last a lifetime. We are hoping to produce leaders who recognize when they need to step back in order to perform better, and we believe that leaders who can recognize this in themselves will be able to recognize it in the people they lead. There are many other skills a leader needs that are perhaps more qualitative and technical, but this skill is no less important.                      

As Kelley’s first female dean, you’re known as a trailblazer. What’s one thing you’ve learned along the way that more female business graduates should hear?

When we pretend we can achieve it all at once, we set our students up for failure. In actual fact, finding a balance is very difficult and young female executives and business students should look at their achievements in the span of their career throughout their lives.

Very early on in my career, when my children were very young, I tried to get a lot of work done in a faculty role. As part of the consulting work I did, I had to travel a lot and missed out a lot on my children’s experiences. I eventually made a concerted effort to travel less and stay home to see them through their young experiences. When they went to high school, I renewed my interest in these activities. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a sideways step, or even a backward step, and focus not on a period of time but on your entire career.

My epiphany actually came when our family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and I couldn’t be with my daughter on her first day of kindergarten. The night before, we prepared everything – lunches, backpack, clothes. We had her dress laid out and I gave clear instructions to my husband, who was also a working parent, on how to get her ready for her first day. He did it all and took a picture to show me how he had done everything I’d asked and everything had gone well. I looked at the picture and told him: “I’m so grateful to you, but you put her dress on backward for the entire day!” And so today, we still have that picture of my daughter in a backward dress.

What are some trends you’ve noticed that will impact business education?

Population growth in the U.S. is slowing down and this concerns me as an educator. People are maturing and having fewer children. The undergrad population is made up mostly of 18-to-22-year-olds and we expect to see shrinking cohorts of the population in that age group. The declining population of this profile is something American universities will have to contend with.

The first issue goes hand-in-hand with the globalization of education, though under the current administration, there’s been a lot of uncertainty about where the U.S. fits in the global environment. U.S. schools today are seeing a potential decline in international students wanting to come here to study and this hurts the diversity of the learning environment, which worries me. A decline in diversity in learning environments means domestic students won’t be learning as much about international cultures and experiences which is necessary to produce globally-aware businesspeople.

And again, there’s the trend of stress and mental wellness. I worry about whether students today are mentally ready to cope with all the stressors they’ll be facing that prior generations did not have to deal with, such as gun safety and financial challenges.

What do you wish more students and their parents knew?

I wish more parents would give their students space to make decisions, to fail in college, and learn from it. Parents should not intervene too quickly and excessively. There are two situations in which parents should step in quickly – when the child is very ill, and when the child is in trouble legally. For the bulk of the students’ decisions on a daily basis, parents should give them the opportunity to practice the decision-making skills that will help them become mature adults.

For example, I just got back from a work trip in France where it’s not unusual for high-schoolers to have a glass of wine at dinner. They are given the opportunity to drink in moderation and in a mature manner. When we take away the opportunity for kids to learn mature behavior in the home, they are likely to abuse freedom the first time they experience it and the result is excessive drinking.

The key is not to turn them lo0se or prevent everything, but to give them opportunities to behave responsibly. And as educators, our role is to care for these students when their parents cannot be there. Last fall, a student had an electric scooter crash. I called the mother to let her know what had happened and told her I’d be going to the hospital to care for her daughter. When possible, step in and take care of someone else and by example, that helps students develop maturity.

Of all that is happening in the world, which issue(s) are closest to your heart and how do you stay informed?

I care deeply about several issues – climate issues, gun safety, and politics. I watch the news regularly in the evenings to stay an informed citizen and I am also concerned about what things are affecting my environment as an educator. I follow things like immigration matters and the opioid crisis and read the Wall Street Journal for international news, the local paper to know what’s happening in our community, The New York Times, Washington Post, and listen to NPR quite a bit. I’m a fan of public radio and television.

What is a golden rule that you try to lead your life by?

I believe that if I’ve done something wrong or inappropriate, I don’t hesitate to say I’m sorry and acknowledge my mistake. I think admitting wrong helps the healing process and when people realize you’re trying your best even though you’re not always correct, they often understand. Fairness is paramount to me and I can only hope they’ll forgive me for my error.

It’s part of my family background to take responsibility right away and to do what is right and fix what wrong I’ve caused. None of us are perfect and we’re going to make mistakes.