Dean’s Q&A: Marc Rubin, Miami Farmer

Miami University Farmer School of Business. Courtesy photo

Dr. Marc Rubin might not have been drawn to business education at a young age, but he was drawn to money and work. The Dean of Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, says he was just 10-years-old when he started mowing lawns to make some spending money. And by the time he was 12, Rubin was helping out in his family’s wholesale business, sweeping floors and putting things away.

“My parents both worked when I was growing up and as soon as I could, I would work in our family business on Saturdays for four hours, and three days a week during the summer,” Rubin says. “It’s how I became close to my grandfather, bonded with him, and learned the ethics of work.”

Rubin grew up in Cleveland, where he met his wife in high school and married at 22-years-0ld. His father held an accounting degree but mostly worked as a salesperson in the family business that sold headwear, hats, gloves, and more. His mom also went to work and joined the family business as a bookkeeper for a while. Following in their footsteps, Rubin says he had always held one job or another, as a stock boy, working for Sears, and even as a bank teller for a few years.

Rubin was appointed dean of the Farmer School in 2018 but says that becoming an accounting professor was never planned. Rather, it was because he became close to a professor and found his duties “cool” that he detoured from a career in law.

Poets&Quants spoke with Rubin to find out more about trends he’s noticed in business education, mental health of college students, and how he stays on top of things happening in the industry.

How did you come to be in higher education?

That wasn’t my plan! Do you know any kid who says they wanted to be an accounting professor? Who, at 18, wants to be that?

I was an accounting major but I intended to go to law school. In case I didn’t get into law school, I would have another profession to fall back on. In my senior year, I was admitted to a number of law schools. But in my junior year, I got to know a departmental chair who I had a couple of classes with. He called me in once to ask me if I knew what had happened to a friend and that’s how I got to know him and began visiting with him regularly. I eventually started thinking: ‘Dang, he has a cool job! He’s a great teacher, he gets to talk with students and hang out on a college campus with college kids with all this gorgeous architecture. If I can do that for the rest of my life, that’d be so cool.’ That experience planted the seed of going into higher education in my mind.

When I applied to grad school, I had already been admitted to a law school. After I got my bachelors at Miami and masters degree at the University of Illinois, I took my CPA and went to practice as an auditor in Chicago. After some time, my wife who was a special education teacher said she wanted to get her doctorate and so we both went back to school to get our doctorates.

I’ve been pretty blessed because I went into this pretty naively. If someone had told me this would be my career path, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’ve gotten to teach in Korea, visit San Francisco and Florida and wherever our terrific alumni base are traveling like Cyprus and Australia. I will also be giving a speech in Taiwan as the president of the American Accounting Association. The group has 75,000 members. If you had told me that I’d be president of the association one day, I wouldn’t have believed you either.

What have been some of your greatest challenges as dean?

It’s not only challenging to be dean, it’s getting even more challenging.

The biggest challenge is how to continue to provide high-quality educational experiences with a sustainable economic model in higher education. This was the biggest challenge even when I was the accounting chair. Schools used to be esteemed academies but people are now a little skeptical and rightly so. States are not supporting their schools the way they used to. The money we get from the state has shrunk from 50% to under 10%.

We are also seeing an oversupply of traditional colleges and it’s getting highly competitive to get students in here. It’s a stressful environment in many ways and we have to make sure that our students are as competitive as other students in the global economy. Teaching good skills means the faculty has to have good skills and it’s not cheap to provide skilled faculty. We need to support our faculty in teaching students cutting-edge skills and we need to figure out how to do this in a cost-effective way. We also have to look at how machine learning is affecting learning. The model for successful higher education is changing and the school that figures out how to do it well will be the winners. The rest will be left behind.

At Farmer, we have a pretty good economic situation now. Even so, we can’t keep going on the way we are as we look into the future. The situation is going to change dramatically. This year, private schools have been offering discount rates of over 50%. State schools don’t have to discount that much but we still need high-quality students and everyone’s competing for them. If we can’t bring in the tuition dollars, we need to figure out what we’re going to do to raise revenues because we’re in a world where expenses are still going up and we’d better start being creative.

Online schools have a role to play in higher education, but there are some things they just cannot do. There’s a wide continuum of online schools and classes available where you may have to be online at a certain time, even communicate and work live with your classmates. But at the end of the day, it’s still a virtual classroom. It’s a great alternative for people who cannot get away to attend classes or if they have kids and need to care for them, but preliminary research has found that online classes are just not as effective as person-to-person type classes. It may be better than the alternative, which is not having any education, but as we move to a more skills-based education, it’s hard and expensive to do online. We are no longer in a pure content knowledge-based economy. Employers want students with critical thinking skills and it’s not cheap to challenge students online.

Our specialty isn’t in having online classes, though some of our students are demanding access to online versions of lessons in some situations. However, we are a true living, learning community where students live on campus, see the faculty on campus, and connect with others all the time. It’s a great advantage of ours and we do it really well. Still, online has its role and we’ll have to adapt.

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