Dean’s Q&A: Idalene Kesner of Indiana University

Idalene Kessner of Indiana University's Kelley Schol

Idalene Kesner of Indiana University’s Kelley Schol

It was just about a year ago that Idalene Kesner made history at the University of Indiana’s Kelley School of Business, becoming the first woman to lead the business school it its nearly 100-year history. Kesner has deep roots at the Kelley School,  making her a natural choice to replace Dan Smith, who left the school after a seven-year tenure to lead the Indiana University foundation.

Kesner received her MBA and PhD at Kelley, met her husband at the school and served on the faculty for 18 years, including a stint as interim dean, before being tapped for her current role.

“I’m the first woman to lead the business school. To me, that means much more than being the first woman because I’m the first woman and a graduate of the school,” she said.


One of her top priorities is increasing the diversity of the student body, including the number of women attending the school, she said. Women make up around 36 or 37 percent of undergraduate business students, a number she’d like to be higher, she said.

While her background lies primarily in the MBA world – she was chairwoman of Kelley’s full-time MBA program from 2003 to 2006 – she has a keen interest in expanding the visibility and reputation of the school’s large undergraduate program, which has 5,000 students alone at the school’s flagship Bloomington campus. The undergraduate program is currently ranked eighth by Bloomberg Businessweek and holds the number ten spot in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking.

In her first year on the job, she’s been busy spearheading some initiatives that she hopes will help vault the school into the national spotlight.  The school is launching a major branding campaign this summer that Kesner hopes will help get the word out about Kelley’s strong programs, make it more of a household name for prospective undergraduate business students.

She’s also helping oversee an ambitious $63 million building and renovation project, which will give the school a new state-of-the-art building and 520,000 square feet of office and classroom space.

Kesner recently spoke with Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast about why she believes attending a large undergraduate business program is an advantage, the school’s emphasis on preparing students for the job market as early as freshman year and how recent tweaks to the curriculum will benefit students.

What’s the mark you want to leave as the first woman dean?

I’m working on quite a few initiatives that I hope will leave a mark on the school. These are not just connected to being a woman, but primary among them is building out the brand of the school, the reputation and the awareness people have for our business school. We really have an amazing school across all of our programs, both undergraduate and graduate. I would say we are not as well-known as some of the other schools, and if you look across the board we are up in every single ranking this year, and often times we are placed well within the top ten. We are very proud of all the rankings, but fear we are not as well known as we could be. We are launching a major branding initiative this summer, thanks to work from an external branding agency to help us communicate who we are and what we stand for.

We also hope to build out the representation and the diversity of our student body as well as the faculty body, which includes women. While we are very well-represented viz a viz women faculty members, I’d like to have more women students across all our programs. That will be something we’ll be working on.

In addition, we’re working on domestic and global partnerships and I hope when I do leave this place that we’ll have an abundance of very high-profile partnerships.

There has been an explosion in undergraduate business education in the last few years. What do you think are some of the reasons for it?

I think business education has always been quite popular among undergraduates, and that’s even more true at the Kelley School of Business where we represent a significant majority of students coming to Indiana University. I can’t speak for all of the university, but at our university, counting majors and minors, we touch one out of every four students here. So we are a very large business school and interest in business is significant here at Indiana University.  I think often times that interest in business in some sense waxes and wanes, depending on what is happening in the economy and in the broader environment. I think in times past when the reputation of business was struggling a bit, we might have seen a decline in terms of the interest of students wanting to go to business school. But certainly with the return of the economy improving, we’re seeing a resurgence in the reputation of business.

This generation of undergraduate students are keenly interested in not just pursuing an undergraduate degree, but having the business they’re affiliated with give back in some meaningful way. We refer to that as social impact or social entrepreneurship, in other words doing something for society. I think undergraduates have a keen interest in being a member of a business organization and having the business give back of a social nature.  The Kelly School has a very active program where many of our undergraduates go on trips where the activity is working on social engagement projects in a country.  For example, they might go study a country and then go work on a consulting project in that country, often times for a non-profit in a very meaningful way. I think that fits the nature of today’s undergraduate students as a generation who wants to have engagement and a program like ours provides that.

What do you believe are some of the advantages to being a large undergraduate business program, and how does that help differentiate you from other schools? 

Across our two campuses we have over 300 faculty. That means we teach some very specialized courses for students within each functional area of business, and as a result students can take electives not offered in the other schools. It’s a huge advantage for students because they can go out and specialize in things like data or business analytics that you’re not able to do anywhere else. The other advantage that we have is not just because we are large but because of our culture we’re an extremely innovative program. We started doing some things a while back that other schools are starting to copy now. One example of this is an integrated core for undergraduates that we started in 1968.  A more recent illustration is a new ethics simulation that all students participate in, and it really illustrates some of the fascinating and unique phenomena in the sphere of ethics. Sometimes students are not even aware that they have crossed the line in ethics and it becomes a slippery slope quickly. They make one decision and it affects something else.

We also have done since the early 1990s a course we call K201. It’s a course in analytics and databases. It was highly innovative in its time, and we’ve been doing that for many, many years. Students are very sophisticated in terms of their capabilities and Excel skills, much more so than other schools. It’s a required course for us and students go though the course over the year. It helps us be innovative in our program because the course reaches so many students.  In addition, we have over 70 undergraduate student organizations, so just about everything students want to do forms a co-curricular activity.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.