The P&Q Interview: AI & Tech Professor GJ de Vreede Named New Dean Of Stevens School of Business

Stevens Institute of Technology enrolls about 8,000 students per year, making for smaller, more intimate classes. Courtesy photo

Not sure if you’ve had the chance to dive into these yet, but can you tell me what, in your opinion, stands out in Stevens’ undergrad, MBA and graduate, and executive programs?

So far, I haven’t seen the programs in much detail, obviously, but I’ve mentored students, and Stevens students stand out. They’re not only eloquent and wise, they’re inquisitive. They’re not afraid to ask questions, they listen. And then they follow up. That’s not always what you find. It’s really like diamonds in the rough.

I’m planning to be in the classroom at least for a bit. I’ve never been out of the classroom even in my stint as interim dean.

On the doctoral level, I worked with one student which was actually a coincidence. I was invited to serve on the doctoral committee way before my name was suggested for the deanship. That student defended a few months ago, so I also got to know how the faculty and the PhD students work together and the caliber of students that we have. I was really blown away.

It sounds like you see fintech as being an integral part of the Stevens School of Business system. Why do you think it’s important and what innovations do you see coming in the space?

Like I said, fintech is a family of technologies, and it ranges from anything that is purely AI driven and focused on the financial markets to consumer facing apps to business to business initiatives. The market projections for fintech are like a hockey stick curve. There is just a lot happening.

What I personally like a lot about the fintech area is the entrepreneurial focus. It’s not just the big firms and the big banks that are looking at what we can do with financial technology, but it’s the people who start in college with ideas and they create apps, they create services, and they see what sticks. I think it’s going to be an area that will keep evolving especially over the next decade or two.

Then you will start seeing offshoots. One important offshoot, for example, is insurtech. What insurance companies are doing with these types of technologies and how they better manage risk and assets, how they do analysis, how they support consumers and commercial partners to provide the best coverage.

Do you hope fintech is what Stevens becomes known for?

We are known for part of it already, but we’re going to be known for it even more. We have a fintech center, CRAFT – Center for Research toward Advancing Financial Technologies. It is an IUCRC (Industry-University Research Partnership) which is a term that signifies a partnership between two institutions with commercial partners that sponsor it. It is the first such center endowed by the National Science Foundation.

CRAFT has already built quite a reputation and was one of the reasons why NJ FAST also looked at Stevens to find a home for their incubator. CRAFT is very firmly embedded in the research surrounding finance, financial engineering and fintech, whereas the incubator, of course, it’s going to take a very practical, entrepreneurial angle. I think that’s positioned Stevens and our School of Business in particular really on the front row to make headway. We already have a strong research engine and now you’re going to have the entrepreneurial engine and together they will push the reputation forward.

What research goals do you have for Stevens School of Business?

You are looking for what they call in the Netherlands “the sheep with five legs.” You want research to be everything. You want publications in the top journals, you want publications with impact that businesses use. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s very difficult to do a project that does everything. So, the same thing with our faculty.

Stevens’ campus looking across the river at Manhattan. Courtesy photo

What I’m hoping for us holistically as a school of business is we will touch on everything, but that doesn’t mean that everybody has to do everything. So we will have a core group of researchers that go after the top journals, and you’ll be recognized for that. You know, rankings often are based on research productivity of faculty.

Then you will have faculty that will focus more on funded research – NSF funded, private party funded, foundation funded. That’s also very important for rankings because often rankings look at research expenditure, which comes from grants. Now, traditionally, a school of engineering has much more of that than a school of business. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing that. Actually, we should strengthen that.

Then there is research that very closely links to your community. For example, one of the things we set up at USF, which I believe will translate to Stevens very well, is what we call a Practice Center. When an organization has a real problem, they partner with the university, with a faculty member, and a team of students and for a semester or two, they work on that problem, present a solution, but they do it in a scientific way so that it’s also publishable in the end. And so you do research with impact. That gives the students a lot of experience, and it gives the faculty access to community data and community partnerships.

You want to bolster your research enterprise from different dimensions. So it’s not just publications, but it’s also funded research and it’s also research with impact.

Are there any challenges that you overcame or achievements from your time as interim dean at USF that you think prepare you for your upcoming role?

In Florida, one of the big things, of course, was our consolidation process. I am very proud of how we managed it. You can imagine, USF has about 50,000 students so it’s a very large animal, and the only person that likes change is a wet baby. We told faculty that we’re going to realign all the curriculum, all the work policies, the evaluation policies and rewards structures, etc. Well, we navigated that and each campus came out, I think, better than each of us individually was before. Our college became sort of the template for the other colleges, to the point that it was becoming a bit embarrassing, “Now look at Muma. Model your trajectory after that.”

Other things I’m very proud of is I was able to roll out a staff development campaign after COVID, consolidation, and a budget cut (what I called the three ‘Cs’.) The organization was a bit worn out, especially on the staff level. We instituted a development committee, new reward structures, appreciation awards, but also recalibration of salaries.

We also rolled a type of career center, but much more than what you traditionally see in business schools. We have a workplace readiness program through the Bellini Talent Development Center. Beginning in their freshman year and all the way through their senior year, students have to master certain skills to become Bellini Certified (named for the center donors Arnie and Lauren Bellini). These include interview skills, building your CV, but also emotional intelligence, working in teams, conflict management, how you get ready for your first job or internship, you name it. We built these things into core courses, so there’s no escape. By the end of their fourth year, students are workforce prepared. The plan was to roll this out in full force this fall, but we managed to do it a year ahead of time.

And then there were our program rankings. Our OMBA is in the top 20, our Executive MBA is highly ranked, entrepreneurship is number six among public universities in the nation. That started when I was academic director for the graduate program. I focused on those rankings and it was very cool to see that we were improving in so many areas.

Do you foresee implementing some of these initiatives at Stevens?

Absolutely. When we talk about workforce preparedness, Stevens is already doing an amazing job there. But of course, you know, you always try to bring best practices and learn from each other.

With rankings, Stevens is already pretty highly ranked. You don’t chase a ranking, you check the rankings to see what it is that different ranking organizations look at. Are those the right things to do? Typically they are.

Then you can start thinking creatively: How can we do a better job on this dimension? And so that’s what we did with our OMBA, for example. Consolidation gave us an opportunity because we had different online MBA programs with different curricula at each campus, and we basically could take the best of all worlds, and then come up with a couple of new initiatives. Our program started going from the 90s to now a top 20 program. You can imagine it’s easier to get from 90 to 70 than it is from 30 to 20.

Another area where we’re going to need some creativity is in our enrollments, especially international enrollments, given certain tensions in the world. Things are under a bit of pressure. But there may be creative ways to recruit in a different way, and expand our battery of recruitment tools.

What are the opportunities at Stevens that you are most excited about?

The enthusiasm of the faculty; that was palpable when I was visiting. The quality of the students. The location, the proximity to where it happens – you look at Manhattan and you know things are going on there.

I know the leadership at Stevens is innovative and ambitious; they’re also very pragmatic and planned. They are very meticulous about creating a strategy and then keeping the finger on the pulse, taking the vitals every year to see where we are progressing, where to adjust course, where to invest more. They are very driven to that end goal, and I think that’s what helped the institute to reach this height that it has.

Anything else you’d like to add?

On a personal level, I’m excited to move to New Jersey. It’s not only the institute itself that feels like home, but you may know that New York has a lot of Dutch history. So I’m excited to explore that a bit more and be in a new culture. Nebraska is different from Florida, which is different from New Jersey.

 

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