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

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

Growing up in Philadelphia, Lynn Wooten says business school was always in her blood. With Villanova, Temple, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the City of Brotherly Love is a hotbed for business education. What’s more, Wooten says, her mother, father, and aunt all graduated from business school.

“I spent the first 15 years of my life in Philadelphia. My mom was one of 10 children — six girls and four boys. And of the girls, two are in business, three in teaching, and one in social work,” Wooten says with a laugh. “My work as dean of Dyson is a little bit of everything they do.”

Wooten is the David J. Nolan Dean and professor of management and organizations at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. But really, she says, she’s in “the business of caring.” 

“Every student who comes through my office, I treat like they’re my child,” Wooten explains. Her actual daughter is a rising senior in college while her son graduated from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and is starting law school in Michigan, where Wooten spent most of her adult life and 19 years of her career.

According to the Poets&Quants 2018 list of best undergraduate business schools, Dyson ranks 7th nationwide on a list of 88 schools, ahead of business schools at the University of California-Berkeley, The College of William & Mary, and Georgetown University.

We spoke with Wooten to find out about the challenges she faced as dean, changes she’s seen in the industry, and what more business students can do to help their careers. 

P&Q: What values are most important to you as dean?

Wooten: The three values I hold closest to my heart are excellence, community, and learning. 

I went to college at 18 and I never left. I loved college so much I continued all through to my Ph.D. I believe in communities and believe that even great leaders need a village. I’m always grateful that the communities I’ve been a part of, including my family and extended family, have taught me the importance of giving back. 

I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 25 years, and that’s the community that raised me. Many of those people were a generation older than me, and they were outstanding mentors. 

What have been some challenges you’ve faced in your career?

I had kids when I was young, I was 28, right when I finished my Ph.D. I had to learn how to live an integrated life with family, and there’s a seven-year gap between my son and daughter. I became pregnant just as I became a young assistant professor at the University of Florida. I got married, became pregnant, and became a professor all at the same time. Back then, I had to manage both my civic and personal life to have a productive life. 

Today, I’ve been in office since 2011 and I wake up every morning thinking about how I can create transformational change with every point I touch as the dean of the undergrad program.

As dean, transformational change is about helping students achieve academic excellence and learn to learn. The second thing is how to create opportunities for students to lead, and create students who want to lead. They need to understand that we are all leaders and we can lead from any place. It’s also crucial that students embark on successful business careers where they will also use their business acumen to make the world a better place. Whether they’re concerned about health and security, or food and access, whether they are in education or the private sector, I hope the students want to give back to the community. Fourthly, students need to think about a lifelong career that gives them fulfillment, and lastly, with over 3,000 students minoring in business, they need to be prepared to integrate their business learning into their other work.

Having a family and being part of a family has been one of the biggest joys of my life, but I’ve learned that you can’t have everything at the same moment, and it doesn’t mean you can’t have everything over a lifetime. I’ve learned so much from being a wife and parent that I wouldn’t have gotten from a workplace or from community service. I’ve spent hours and hours working while the kids are asleep, and dragged my children to most college campuses I’ve had to be on, but in the process, I’ve learned that everyone’s magic formula is different, so go with the flow and enjoy it all. 

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

How did you get into higher education?

I always wanted to be an academic. One of my favorite toys as a child was a chalkboard, where I gave lessons. My first job was as a girl scouts counselor. I also taught Sunday School at church, and with the inspiration of my dad who was an art history professor, I knew I wanted to be a university-level teacher. I could not imagine not being on a college campus where I get to teach, make knowledge, do research, and stay young. 

What has been the best thing you’ve done for your career?

Women tend to be risk-averse and make career moves only if they are safe and have the competencies to do it. The best things I’ve done for my career is being open to mentorship and learning, whether it’s reverse mentors, senior mentors, or peer mentors, and opening myself up to opportunities, whether it’s a research project or something else.

I’ve been open enough to walk through doors and try new things, believing in it as part of a learning journey, and it’s allowed me to become part of research that’s been published in major journals and received notable grants.

What are some of the trends and changes you’ve seen in business and business education?

When I went to undergrad in 1984, no one was majoring in business, especially women of color. Now business is the most popular undergraduate course in the U.S. The “hotness of business” is definitely not something that existed before. 

Finance also wasn’t such a big career path before, rather it was accounting that was popular. 

The other thing is that students think that being able to code is a new trend, but I was taking cloud-based computing classes when I was an undergrad.

Another change I’ve seen is the international integration of business and liberal arts. The two used to be so separate, and now we have students majoring in finance and psychology. I think we’ve realized that the best employees are students who have an integrated mindset, who use the liberal arts to speak to business. 

What is something that keeps you up at night and what do students need to do more of?

Increasing college tuition keeps me up. I think that an excellent college product is one that is accessible to all, especially since I see our students as one of my own. My job is to ensure they thrive wherever they come from and wherever they go, that they all have access to opportunities, and that the faculty and staff are equipped to facilitate this.

I think more people need to dedicate time to reading fiction and non-fiction. 

With my generation, reading was a popular hobby because it opened up so many worlds. The library was one of my favorite places as a child and I continue to have a structured reading process with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

The other thing is to learn about different cultures. You don’t have to travel, all these cultures are often right there on your college campus, in your neighborhood. Students need to develop a cultural intelligence where you have a curiosity about other cultures.

I am currently reading The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity by Shelly Francis. When I think about my faculty and staff, I want to build an everyone culture. I need to build a culture where learning is a mission for everyone, not just students. 

What current affairs topic is closest to your heart?

The lack of community. People don’t get along anymore and it’s becoming acceptable to talk in a way that is not civil.

Community is my top value, and the racism, sexism, and how we treat immigrants really troubles me.

Share with us an experience you had with failure and disappointment

I remember the first time I received a rejection for a journal article. In our career, it’s publish or perish and rejection letters aren’t all nice. I sat down, took in the feedback and thought about how I could get up and make the paper better. 

In my career, it’s about innovating curriculum and some things will work while others won’t. If we want to get anywhere, we need to be receptive to feedback to improve our teaching and administrative practice. 

The best advice I have is that when you’re experiencing failure, you must learn from it and pick yourself up. So, make sure to surround yourself with community to cheer you on. 


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