The Unintentional Trailblazer At Villanova’s Business School

Villanova Business School Dean Joyce Russell

Joyce Russell, the first female dean at Villanova University’s business school, finds herself in the unique position of being an unintentional trailblazer.

She was so excited at first about her new job that she didn’t reflect much on what it meant to the campus at large, she said. That all changed when she found herself frequently stopped in airports this year by female Villanova alums and students on campus.

“People are coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m so excited there is a woman business school dean at Villanova,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it when I accepted the role, I just went right to the challenge. I have found that it matters a lot to the school’s female students and alums and invigorates them.”


Ensuring diversity on campus, whether amongst women or other populations, is a cause that is close to Russell’s heart. Back when she was senior associate dean of the business school at the University of Maryland at College Park, she created and chaired the school’s diversity council, and was also a member of the provost’s task force on diversity. She’s looking to make a similar mark on Villanova, creating in her first year on the job a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee that she hopes will encourage more women to go into business and consider careers outside of female-dominated fields like marketing and management.

That’s just one of many tasks on her plate this year as she settles into her new role as dean of the business school, which she started Aug. 1st. It’s been a big “listen and learn” tour so far, said Russell, whose background is in industrial and organizational psychology. So far, she’s spent much of the first year trying to learn as much as she can about the private, Catholic university, which has 2,500 undergraduate and graduate business students, and a suburban campus just 12 miles away from Philadelphia.

She’s also been busy figuring out what her goals will be in the years to come. One of them will be helping Villanova, which some recruiters call a “hidden Ivy” school, make the transition to the national stage. For Russell, that means helping the business school’s brand and name become more visible to a larger constituency. That’s being driven by the inclusion last year of Villanova into the classification of “doctoral universities” from the master’s colleges and universities category by the prestigious Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. As a result U.S. News & World Report now lists Villanova as one of their top 50 national universities in their 2017 college ranking, whereas beforehand the school was on a list of regionally ranked universities.

“This positions us differently as a business school,” she said. “In order for us to move onto a stronger national playing field, we need the infrastructure to make that happen in terms of reinvesting in our academic mission and having more faculty and staff support.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quant’s Alison Damast, Russell spoke about how she wants to create more interdisciplinary business programs on campus with other colleges, why it is becoming so much harder for to land a seat in the school’s freshman class and her philosophy on connecting and engaging with students on campus.

You began your career at the University of Tennessee, and have been at the Smith School since 1998, most recently as senior associate dean of the Smith School. What was it that drew you to come to Villanova after your long tenure at the Smith School? 

I’m from the Maryland area and had been away for 20 years. When I finally got back to that area, it wasn’t like I was looking to leave. But when I saw this opportunity at Villanova, I knew it was the perfect fit for me. I knew if I ever left Maryland, this would be the kind of school I would want to go to as a dean just because it is a private, Catholic mission-based school where a lot of the focus is on the positive impact that you can make.

You are training people to be really successful academically and it has a really strong academic program. It’s not just about your own success and individual’s success– we train them to do that — but it is also about what you give back to society and the world. It’s very mission-driven, which is great. Our students have a liberal arts background, and I have a liberal arts background. For me, it was a great size in terms of really being able to know the community well and being able to work well with the other colleges. The university is 11,000 students as a whole and the business school is very connected to the engineering, nursing and arts & sciences schools

It’s a Division 1 school, yet the student always comes first.  That whole model really appeals to me. The school really believes in the importance of teaching, reach and service. At this institution these are the things the faculty really cares deeply about, and there’s not any one emphasized at the expense of any others.

Villanova is known for its strong undergraduate business program, rather than a full-time MBA program. What advantage does this give the school’s undergraduate business students? 

Villanova does have a really strong undergraduate program. If you’re at a place where you have a full-time MBA, it is often the flagship program. Villanova has an incredibly strong undergraduate program, and the placement rates for jobs and internship are really high. We don’t have a full-time MBA, which I’m fine with because we’re getting known for “Part of Something Bigger” marketing campaign.  We have a number of specialty master degrees, and a part-time and online MBA. We cater towards working professionals. If you have a full-time MBA, you spend so many resources focusing on a shrinking population. Our undergraduate population has incredible job outcomes, so we will continue to grow our undergraduate program, which is really strong, first-rate and an important focus for us.

Ensuring a diverse student body was a big priority for you when you worked as the senior associate dean at the Smith School of Business. What are some of the things you’re doing at Villanova to encourage a diverse student body?

In this first year, I’ve been trying understand the diversity of our population and ensuring we’re contributing to diversity in terms of faculty and staff, women and the general population. Employers want us to find them more women and more diverse candidates. I oversaw a big initiative in this area at Maryland and am doing the same thing here. We want to encourage and entice more women into business. We’re partnering with high schools and probably partnering with Girl Scouts. We in business have to do a stronger job of helping younger girls understand what type of career opportunities they can have and get them excited about a career in business. For example, I started a Diversity and Inclusion committee at Villanova, and we’re doing great things in terms of women and professional networking.

I think all business schools need to reach down into younger grades, similar to the STEM movement. We, like most business schools, are not bringing in enough women, and even if we do, they are often attracted to certain opportunities and not others. The committee is looking at how we can get more women undergraduates to go into finance, economics and real estate. Women traditionally go into marketing and management and we want to entice them into other disciplines because employers are asking for that.  I think we’re further ahead than other business schools in this space. We have a fantastic mentoring program for undergraduates, have junior and senior tutors, and a nice alumni-mentoring program. We initially started our alumni-mentoring program with women, and have since expanded to the full population.

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