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Alison Davis-Blake Joins Ross as Edward J. Frey Dean

7/1/2011 --

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Alison Davis-Blake assumed the role of Edward J. Frey Dean of the Ross School of Business July 1. She also is the school’s Leon Festinger Collegiate Professor of Management. Davis-Blake brings expertise in organization theory, organizational behavior, strategic human resource management, and managing human capital.

Davis-Blake most recently was dean at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. While there, she revamped the MBA curriculum, implemented a new BBA curriculum, and initiated a requirement that all undergraduates complete an international experience. In addition, she grew undergraduate enrollment from 1,600 to 2,300 and achieved notable success with development and fundraising through the opening of the school’s $50 million Hanson Hall. Prior to Carlson, Davis-Blake served 16 years on the faculty at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

To coincide with her appointment at Ross, Davis-Blake launched an external blog, accessible via the school's home page. She will use the forum to communicate with current and prospective students, alumni, corporate partners, and media. And as she prepared to take the helm at Ross, Davis-Blake sat down with Dividend magazine for an interview about her thoughts on business education, the role of public universities in society, and her assessment of future trends in business education.

You've spent the majority of your career at public universities. Was that a specific choice?

Davis-Blake: Yes, it was an intentional choice, because I really believe in the mission of the public university. If we look at not only American society (and even society more globally, but certainly American society), the public higher education system is the single most successful social experiment for creating intergenerational upward mobility that's ever been created.

I think we can all agree that the University of Michigan is an exemplar of what the public university is supposed to be. Michigan delivers access to true global excellence, which results in knowledge creation, technology transfer, job creation, and the upgrading of human capital. Ross, as a top-tier business school, plays a significant role in that scenario, both on campus and around the world.

At Carlson, you initiated a requirement that all undergraduates complete an international experience. You've also identified globalization as one of your key priorities at Ross. Can you speak a bit more about that?

Davis-Blake: It's a given that Ross students will be working in a global economy. In order to be effective in a global economy you have to understand it. I think the best way to understand global business is to experience it. In my own research, I've discovered that a lot of the problems people encounter when working globally are not language problems. They are not technical problems. They are cultural problems. And so the part of globalization that is hardest for people is the part they must experience firsthand.

That experience can take many forms. It may be doing a project in a global destination where you have to interact on the site with the firm and its problems. It may be an immersive, study-abroad experience for you at a foreign university for a semester. It may be a short-term global experience where you are not doing a project but you are inside a company and looking at its supply chain globally and talking with customers and suppliers. I think it's got to be firsthand experience and it's got to be some kind of connection that forces you to come to grips with cultural differences and assumptions.

Globalization is a schoolwide activity that should touch everything at Ross: academic programs, faculty research, executive education, development, alumni relations, recruiting, etc. All should have a global face.

You also have cited entrepreneurship as a key focus going forward. Why do you think this is important?

Davis-Blake: Entrepreneurship is important for the simple reason of supply and demand. If you look at the Ross student body (and the student body of many other top business schools), more and more students want to be entrepreneurs at some point in their lives. At the same time, many Ross students will be working in entrepreneurial settings, whether they are pure startups or just early-stage businesses. It's important that we provide more learning opportunities that will facilitate that.

Entrepreneurship starts with taking an idea and assessing whether it's technically feasible, whether it's valuable, and whether a market exists for it. Ross students always will need to recognize good ideas and bring them forward, whether they start their own firms or act as "intrapreneurs" inside large corporations.

That's what action-based learning at Ross helps people do. It develops this skill of turning ideas into action. Entrepreneurship is an inherently multidisciplinary area, and Ross, by virtue of being at the University of Michigan, is uniquely positioned to deliver a very rich, multidisciplinary perspective. You have to be able to work with people of all backgrounds in business today: scientists, engineers, designers, lawyers, funders, people who are experts in developing human capital, etc. You need to be able bring these disciplines together. Those disciplines are all available on this campus, and the expertise to bring them together is found within the walls of Ross.

Talk a bit about the future of business education and the challenges this next generation brings.

Davis-Blake: Ross graduates of the future will enter a world of many challenges—geopolitical and economic challenges. I heard an expert recently say this generation may look a lot like the "greatest generation," which came of age during World War II. Today's business students face many of the same issues the "greatest generation" faced: war, social unrest, a poor economy. This is the generation that will have to address some the problems of our complex world—and whether the world and the individual nations within it move forward will depend on this generation.

Today's business students are very team-oriented and socially responsible. I believe they will challenge us to integrate even more social responsibility and ethics, which Ross already has, into the curriculum. In addition, this generation has grown up with technology and brings certain expectations and demands to their university education. But so much of technology today speaks to quick and shallow thinking. Quick communication and different forms of communication are helpful, but just because we have Twitter, it doesn't mean that's the longest sentence you'll ever need to write in your life.

We often speak about how we as educators must adapt to this generation. But, I think it's equally important for this generation to adapt to the values that come with a university education. I think they will push us to integrate technology into the learning experience and force us to use technology more creatively. It's a challenge I'm willing to take up. At the same time, there is a reason that institutions like the University of Michigan and Ross last for a long time. They deliver enduring value and challenge people toward deep and serious engagement with ideas.

If you look at the public land-grant university, what the Morrill Act envisioned is: We're going to train people in practical fields like agriculture and "machine arts," etc. In business education today, I feel a renaissance is important in terms of a different kind of practical education, and that's where Ross can continue to innovate and lead—we've got the resources and the history to lead a renaissance in action-based learning.

Talk a bit more about your feelings around action-based learning, which we feel is a real differentiator at Ross.

Davis-Blake: Ross has been a leader in this space for 25 years. Other schools are developing their own version of action-based learning, or field study, and receiving a lot of attention around it. As we move forward, it's important to innovate. We, as Ross, have got to tell the world what we know as a result of these student experiences inside these firms and, based on what we know, we ourselves need to take action-based learning to the next level.

Deborah Holdship

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 647-1847,