After more than a decade as the leader of two colleges at Penn State, James B. Thomas is returning to the Smeal College of Business faculty. It’s the latest chapter in a Penn State career that began in the early 1970s as a political science undergraduate, resumed in the late 1980s as a junior faculty member in business, and expanded over subsequent years as dean at Smeal and the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).
Thomas, who returned to the business school in 2006 to assume the role of dean, oversaw the development of a new strategic focus at Smeal and an emphasis on delivering extraordinary education, conducting research with impact, building a dialogue with society, and fostering a community with distinction. Before stepping down as dean, he shared his perspectives on Smeal, the nature of business education, and his plans for the future.
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I think we’ve built a real sense of culture and a solid identity here at Smeal. Not from scratch, though. It was more about polishing or sort of nudging in certain ways. I really think the new building contributed greatly to that.
At IST, it was about completely creating. All the professors that came in were from other institutions, and everybody was trying to bring in their previous experiences. ‘This is what we did at Texas A&M. This is what we did at Stanford. This is what we did at Michigan.’ The challenge there was driving the message, ‘Well, this is what we do at IST.’ But we had to craft that from scratch.
Smeal was already on a path. It had its traditions. It had its ways of thinking about the world. We worked together to get it moving in a more united way. We made decisions that really revolved around this sense of community and this sense of quality. People are proud of the changes to the Junior Core, or the Honor Code, or the new Department of Risk Management, etcetera, etcetera. Those were instances of a larger vision of being who we think we should be or how we should act as a top business program. Those were pieces of the engine, but the engine itself was this sense of culture and community.
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During the recession, the economic and education landscapes around us changed radically. The things that really affected us during that time, the things that kept you up at nights, were opportunities for graduating students. So we crafted different programs and different ways to engage. Alumni career services, expanding the career services piece for current students, working more with the Bank of America Career Center on campus.
And that paid off because recruiters have come in and said that Smeal is the number one place in the country. That was not serendipity. That was a culmination of thinking more in terms of integrated education, of providing our students with more services, of engaging them through their education in a world that they were going to go into.
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I think there’s still more to do. There needs to be additional emphasis on integration in business schools. How do you think horizontally across departments? The Department of Supply Chain and Information Systems at Smeal gets you to think like that in many ways. The new Department of Risk Management gets students to wrestle with ‘risk’ across functions. But are there other things—thematically, content wise—that we can do to enhance the experience for our students? How can you build into the system better, more apparent, and more valued ways of thinking across traditional academic silos?
We’re getting new kinds of students that have grown up on massive exposure to technology, to social media. They’ve been engaged in thinking in different ways than students from even five years ago. I think we have to ask the tough questions about whether there are different and better ways that fit better with the cultural and intellectual backgrounds of the students that are coming into the University. The idea is that it’s different. How do we represent that difference in our educational offerings? How do we capitalize on that difference? How do we leverage that difference to propel forward?
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Our plan is to do a sabbatical at the University of Texas in the fall. Then, I’ll come back to engage in the spring with a joint appointment as the Elliott Professor with the Departments of Risk Management and Management and Organization. My focus will be around decision-making and strategic issues in both departments, as well as in the classroom. Teaching was my first love, so it’s like coming back home again.
I don’t mean to sound cheeky or maudlin, but the thing I’ll miss most about being dean will be the people. At the end of the day, I believe people are excited about coming to work here. They are excited about making the college better. They’re committed to what we want to do and that sense of purpose about the college.
And I’d like to think that I helped build that reason, but it is also engrained, embedded into the people that work here, and that’s been great.