Dean’s Q&A: Dale Nees of Notre Dame University

Dale Nees of Notre Dame's Mendoza School

Dale Nees of Notre Dame’s Mendoza School

A picture of Dale Nees riding in a submarine is one of the first things students notice when they walk into his office at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

For Nees, the assistant dean for undergraduate studies, the photo is a reminder of his 30-year career for the U.S Department of Defense, which included stints as a submarine commanding officer, commander of a submarine squadron and director of Navy Appropriations Matters.

“The photo always makes for a great conversation piece when students come in to talk to me,” says Nees, now in his third year heading up the undergraduate program. “They always want to know my story.”

Nees’ unusual background is part of what helped land him his current job overseeing the undergraduate program at the Mendoza School, one of the top-ranked undergraduate business programs in the country. It was ranked the number one school for the fifth year in a row in Bloomberg Businessweek’s most recent ranking of undergraduate business programs and tenth by U.S. News & World Report.

Nees first landed at Notre Dame as a professor of naval sciences, teaching leadership and ethics and overseeing the school’s navel ROTC Department. It wasn’t long before administrators at Mendoza realized that his business expertise – he oversaw the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Program’s $10 billion budget at one point in his career – and military background could be an asset to the College of Business. He became senior director of the school’s Undergraduate Studies program in July of 2011, a role that morphed into his current one of assistant dean of undergraduate studies.

“The average age in the navy is 18 to 24, and if you think about it, it is pretty much the same age as the undergraduate level,” he said. “My role here is about working with younger people to help formulate their thoughts and to help guide them.”

During his time at the school, Nees has watched application numbers to the College of Business steadily climb, to the point where the business school is nearly bursting at the seams.

With interest at an all-time high, the school plans to implement stricter policies for admission, Nees said. Already, the school has had to limit the number of students who want to major in finance, the most popular concentration at the school.

Nees spoke with Poets & Quants’ Alison Damast about why he thinks business is so popular on campus, what the application changes mean for incoming students and why he thinks the school’s emphasis on ethics and integrity is important.

Tell me a little bit about your background, which I understand is quite unusual. 

I’m a naval academy graduate who then went into the submarine force, became a nuclear engineer and worked my way up through the ranks to become a submarine commanding officer and a commander of a submarine squadron. Along the way I picked up my MBA through the navy, and when I wasn’t riding subs, fixing them or operating them, I was doing financial management for the navy. I was assistant director of the Navy Budget Office and Senior Military Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller. Then I was head of planning, programming and budgeting for the Submarine Program.

One of the last jobs I had was Director of Navy Appropriations Matters, the group that liasons with the Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill. We represented the House Appropriations Committee on Defense and the Senate Appropriations Committee for Defense, and interceded for money questions they had regarding the program, and facilitated them in making key budget decisions for the Department of the Navy.

That led me to Notre Dame. A lot of people go, “Wow, that is a different kind of path.” I tell people surprisingly it isn’t because in the navy our employees are people we are educating, training and turning into units that can work and carry out unique missions. To me, it is a pretty straightforward transition from a military background to this.

What are you seeing in terms of applications and interest in the business program?

I think you are seeing an explosion. At Notre Dame, the way it works here is every first-year student declares their college in the spring. Many have declared long before now, or had intent, but now they have to commit. We’ve gone this year from about 28 percent of the student body wanting to be a business major to about 35 percent in the last five years. That’s a record number of students, hence one reason Notre Dame is going to be instituting what I would call caps or a limit on the enrollment allowed in the College of Business.

This is not something Notre Dame has historically done. Up till now, students always apply to the school with an intent, but they are not held to that. A normal four-year student who matriculates into Notre Dame has the flexibility to change from one college to another, and that is going to change starting in the fall of 2015. That means that the current high school junior who opens up the Common Application this summer and starts applying to schools will find when they apply to Notre Dame that they must declare a specialty. If they want to be assured or guaranteed of going to the College of Business, they have to specify that in their application in order to be assured admission. If they are then offered admission, they get a guarantee they can go into the College of Business if that’s what they want to do. They can also change their mind.

After that, we will be similar to most colleges and universities that have business programs. In other words, you will have to apply for open seats and it will be regulated. We are now at 725 students, but in a year it will be a group of around 500 students, which we think is a better match for the university. It’s not the College of Business is saying we can’t handle students, like anything you can always find the resources to do that. But the question is one of balance. Do we want  the university to be one-third business, or do we want to keep it more in line with one-fourth, so that there will be a balance with all of the various colleges. The university has said, like many universities, that we need to maintain a healthy balance.

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