Dean’s Q&A: Nebraska’s Donde Plowman

An artist's rendering of the new $84 million, 240,000-square-foot College of Business Administration building to open in 2017

An artist’s rendering of the new $84 million, 240,000-square-foot College of Business Administration building to open in 2017

What is the business school’s niche in the Big 10 Conference, and how do you pitch that to potential students?

Our niche in the Big 10 is that we focus on undergraduate programs more so than the MBA. One of the things we began to see right away when we went to the Big 10 is that some of the schools focused more on the MBA than the undergraduate programs, which were very small. We immediately started recruiting students from Minnesota because Carlson keeps their undergraduate proportion of students down. Then we started taking in students from Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. It’s been a great strategic opportunity for us. We’re now one-third non-residents, and the rest of the student body — about 67 percent — is from Nebraska. We’re still getting lots more Nebraskans, but the pie is getting bigger. We now have full time recruiters in cities like Chicago, Denver and Kansas City. It has really helped the school just to be more diverse and the experience of students is richer when you’re sitting in class next to someone from the state of Washington, Pennsylvania and from China. Their experience is just better that way.

We have also made some big program adjustments that have helped us become more competitive. We recently added a new College of Business Administration Honors Academy, which is a very selective program for undergraduates. The average ACT for the program is over 31, and we have 200 applications for 40 seats. They come in as a cohort, and we’ve new accepted four cohorts. It’s been a really great program and went along with us getting into the Big 10 and needing more competitive programs and opportunities.

Why did the school adapt the “Start Something” motto, and what is the catchphrase’s significance on campus?

We are not a named College of Business yet, and that has been a great opportunity for us. When you look in the Big 10’s 12 schools, only two of the schools are not named. We haven’t been able to develop a brand around a name, but we still need a brand. We worked with a branding firm and ended up picking this idea to “Start Something” as our catch phrase. It really embodies so much, from the way we recruit people to the changes we’re making at the school. I like to get things done and one of the frustrations I face is that universities can take so long to do things. I’m looking to change the school and fast, so this been a great recruiting tool for us. If we hire an assistant professor, we tell them you are going to be able to make your mark right away and start shaping this place. You won’t have to wait to do that till you get tenure, so we’ve been able to attract good quality faculty.

One of these days we’ll get someone to give a naming gift, and then we’ll have to figure out how to incorporate “Start Something” into our new brand. But until then, it is moving us and is, in a way, a rallying point.

What are some of the new programs and majors you’ve added in the last five years?

We’ve had a great experience of working together with industry partners to help transform the school, and I think it is helping us move fast. One of the things we’re doing really well is public and private partnerships. For example, Gallup and the Clifton Foundation gave us a $30 million gift to start the Clifton Strengths Institute, to honor Donald Clifton, a faculty member at the university and the man who helped found Gallup.  We’ve used that money to start the Don Clifton Strengths Institute, and through that we’re offering a new program called Clifton Builders. We’re doing the first pilot of that this fall, with 20 students who we’ve identified as having either an entrepreneurial mindset or nonprofit orientation. The program will help them build new businesses or ventures in the state. The first course they’ll be taking is called “Designing a Life for Impact.” If you look at Generation Z, they’re interested in doing things that have impact and meaning. We’re trying to make our business school more relevant.

We’ve also added a new major in supply chain management. Transportation is the number two industry in our state, so adding a new major in supply chain management was a no brainer. We’ve had 100 students major in the subject so far, and every graduate has gotten a job. There is a huge need here for students with that knowledge, and we try to identify businesses in the state that want to hire these graduates.

How have students and employers responded to the school’s new Career Services Office for business students?

My first few months on the job, I’d reach out to people in the community and they’d say, “I have an internship but when I call down to the school I can’t seem to get through.” It seemed like a black hole. The career office had had a lot of budget cuts, so one of the things I did with our new resources was start a Career Services office at the College of Business. The College of Business pays 90 percent of the salaries and the campus pays the other 10 percent. In a sense, it’s a branch operation, but it’s really ours. One of the ways I sold it was if you take a look at the Big 10 schools, they all have their own career offices. That’s another example of how moving into the Big 10 has helped me with getting us the resources that we need for the college.

So far, having the career office has made a huge difference. There are nine career coaches who work with students. We now require students to take four one-hour courses taught by these career coaches, which cover everything from getting their resume together to doing mock interviews. We’re getting positive feedback from employers, and students are telling us they feel well prepared for interviews and know how to present themselves.

Tell me a little bit about how the school’s new College of Business Administration will change the student experience for business students when it opens next fall.

There’s going to be nothing on campus that looks like it.  We’ve teamed up with a New York City architectural firm and a firm in Omaha to build it. The building was designed around the theme of collaborative learning and experiential learning. There are two styles of classrooms in the building: one is a traditional case classroom and the other is called the cluster classroom, which gives you a lot of flexibility with what you can do in the classroom.  There will be lots of spaces for experiential learning, as well. For example, we’re going to have a retail learning lab, and we’re partnering with the athletic department on this. We’re going to have a store in the building where we’re going to sell athletic ware. Students will run the store and get to keep the profits from it, and we’re going to use it as a live teaching platform where we’ll teach everything from purchasing to supply chain management. We’ll also have a trading room, which will have a very active feel. It will be a large space and will look like an Apple store, with a ‘Genius Bar’ and teaching assistants who can help you with your homework. The building we’re in now was built in 1919 and is very crowded. This is going to make a big difference.