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Anita Blake-Davis smiling at the audience

On June 1, incoming Carlson School dean Alison Davis-Blake spoke to an audience gathered at the school's atrium. The occasion: Gov. Tim Pawlenty signing the bonding bill that includes $26.6 million in state funding for an expansion to the Carlson School.

Open book

New Carlson School dean prepares to enhance the school's national and international reputation

By Mary Lahr Schier

June 30, 2006

For Alison Davis-Blake, stepping into the position of dean of the Carlson School of Management will be a homecoming. Davis-Blake grew up in the Twin Cities and is the daughter of emeritus faculty member and Honeywell Professor of Information Systems Gordon Davis, who is regarded as a pioneer in the field of management information systems. Her mother, LaNay Davis, also has University of Minnesota connections--a masters of science in social work and a Ph.D. in educational psychology. Davis-Blake has spent most of her academic career at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, where she served as senior associate dean for academic affairs, a job she describes as being the "chief operating officer" of the school.

Davis-Blake, 46, will become the Carlson School's 11th dean since its founding in 1919. She will also be the school's first female dean and one of only four female deans at America's leading business schools. On July 1, she replaces interim co-deans Michael Houston and Jim Campbell, who took over the reins after the resignation of former dean Larry Benveniste.

In a recent interview with the Carlson School alumni magazine, Davis-Blake spoke about her leadership style, the potential and challenges of the years ahead, and her thoughts on returning to Minnesota.

What attracted you to the opportunity at the Carlson School? The way that I see it, the dean is involved in engaging people with the school. The dean does not do the work of the school--the teaching, the research, the work of the staff, the student leadership. So I was looking for a school at which the faculty, the staff, and the students were all very good at what they did and cared about the school. That's what I found at the Carlson School. Internally, there is a very productive faculty, outstanding staff, and excellent student leaders. In addition, externally, there is a lot of support for the school from really great people in the Twin Cities business community.

You've noted that you think the Carlson School is positioned to take a step forward in terms of its national and international prominence. What pieces are in place to make that possible? Any major step forward requires resources, and I see the financial resources coming together in large measure through the support of the business community and the support of outstanding individual benefactors--people such as Herb and Bar Hanson, for example, who have been great supporters of serving more undergraduate students through our undergraduate expansion.

In addition, a leading business school requires a first-rate business community. The Twin Cities has that, with both mature companies and entrepreneurial firms that really have worked for the success of the business school. In addition to supporting the school financially, many people from the business community have generously donated their time and participated in a number of initiatives and activities in the school. A great business school requires a world-class faculty, and that takes a long time to build. The Carlson School has that outstanding faculty in place. All the elements are there.

What challenges do you see for the school? Well, I think there are a few main challenges. The first one, quite obviously, is managing growth intelligently. We are going to build a new building to expand our undergraduate program. Intelligent growth, though, requires more than physical space. You need to grow your infrastructure--your advising infrastructure, your career-planning infrastructure, and your faculty. You need to grow your course offerings. And you need to grow all of those at the right time and in the right way. Managing the growth so that it is intelligent and effective is one of our challenges.

Faculty renewal and retention is another challenge, and one that we share with other universities around the country. We're expecting that about a third of our faculty will retire in the next five years. That is going to be critical because we'll be having faculty leave at the same time that we're trying to grow the faculty. It's not easy to hire new faculty--it's a seller's market in most areas.

How would you describe your leadership style? As I said earlier, I think the dean's job is building engagement. How do you do that? There are really three principles that I operate on. The first one is transparency and openness. People can't be engaged if they don't know what's going on or how decisions are being made. Although there are times when confidentiality is vital, there are many more times when people need to know what you're doing and why and how. So, transparency and openness are part of my style.

The second element of my style is fairness. Fairness doesn't mean equality of outcomes--such as everyone getting the same raise. It means equity--that the outcomes that people get, the things that happen to them, and the way they happen to them are fair and equitable. Ideally, the processes used to generate those outcomes should be known so that outcomes are somewhat predictable.

The third thing that is extremely important and part of my style is treating people with respect, which has many components. First and foremost, this means acknowledging the good that people do, because there is a lot of good which people do that goes unnoticed. It also means really listening to people. So, transparency, fairness, respect--those are the pillars of how I lead.

What lessons have you learned at Texas that you will be using here? I should clarify that my role at the McCombs School of Business is similar to that of a chief operating officer, so the lessons I've learned relate more to how to operate the school. The first lesson is probably that it takes everyone to create and maintain a position of excellence. Faculty get a lot of attention at the university and the school, and rightly so, but our staff and our student leaders are extremely important to what we do. To be successful, we also need the support of our alumni and our friends in the business community. You have to consider all your constituents, and not take your eye off that ball.

Second, both Texas and Minnesota are large, prominent institutions, and there is a tendency in that position as the flagship to try to be all things to all people. You cannot do that; you have to focus your efforts. You have to say no to some things that are worthy, but which are not part of the core of what you do. You have to be clear about what you are going to do, and then focus your resources--your money, time, energy, and attention--there.

The third thing is that a large part of a leader's job is conflict resolution. That is where listening comes in: Always get both sides of a story before you act.

Tell us about your Minnesota connection. I grew up in Minnesota, and my father was a faculty member at the Carlson School for 44 years (he retired in 2004). So, I did most of my pre-college schooling in Minnesota, and I am a graduate of Alexander Ramsey High School, which is now Roseville Area High School. I graduated from there in 1976, so I've been away from Minnesota for nearly 30 years.

How does it feel to be coming home? I never thought I would be returning to the Twin Cities, largely because of the way that academic careers work. But there aren't very many universities of the caliber of the University of Minnesota. So, when this all came together, I was just delighted to be back in the Twin Cities community and back near family.

What do you do in your spare time? (Laughs) I have two children, Kent and Gordon, at home. When I am not working, my time is devoted to family, whether it's homework or scouting or church youth group. Most of my time is devoted to them, although I will say my husband and I have enjoyed theater of all kinds for many years. We also enjoy museums, whether they are arts or science.