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Dean-to-Be Q&A: Ross’s D. Scott DeRue

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Last week, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business announced that a new dean has been appointed to succeed Alison Davis-Blake when her term comes to an end on June 30th. Taking the reins is 39-year-old D. Scott DeRue, who joined the Ross faculty in 2007 as an assistant professor of management and has since gone on to lead the school’s executive education, part-time MBA and executive MBA programs.

In an interview with Clear Admit, DeRue shared some of what he’s most excited about in the new role, what he thinks sets Ross apart and what he’ll miss most about teaching. A recognized expert in leadership development, he also reveals a page from the playbook he plans to follow as he assumes this new leadership role.

Our thanks to DeRue for making time to share his plans and vision with the Clear Admit audience.

Clear Admit:
What are you most excited about in this new role?

Scott DeRue: I am most excited about the trajectory that this school is on. Over the last five to six years we have made significant strides and innovations in terms of our student offerings, the investments we are making in faculty and intellectual property and the global experiences we offer our students, which have gone up more than 400 percent in that time period. We are on this trajectory that I see as extremely positive, and I am honored to get to continue to build on that momentum.

CA: What are you most apprehensive about?

I don’t know if apprehensive would be the word I would use, but the first thing that comes to mind is this: The business school market is changing—in some ways quite dramatically and in some ways very quickly. We as a school have done what I believe to be a really good job of keeping up with and leading that change in terms of innovation, investments in technology and opportunities for students. But we as a school have to maintain our commitment to rigor and excellence and at the same time to innovation and investments in faculty and thought leadership so we continue to be a place that students come to for ideas that are really driving and shaping business. I see it as a necessity that we continue our commitment to both excellence and innovation.

CA: What are some of the most significant innovations Ross has made since you arrived?

SD: The global nature of the student experience that we are creating is at the top of that list. Michigan has been known for action-based learning for many years, in particular for our MAP program, which started with our full-time MBAs and now spans across most of our degree programs. About 50 percent of our MAP projects take place outside of the United States. In 2010-11, we offered 100 global student experiences for our undergraduates, and this year we will offer 416. That’s for undergrads alone.

If you look at MBAs and exclude MAP—and again, depending on the year, 40 to 50 percent of MAP projects are outside the U.S.—but even when you exclude MAP we’ve seen the number of global student experiences almost double. To me that is consistent with who we are as a business school. Business is obviously a global endeavor and therefore business education needs to be a global experience.

We fundamentally believe that students learn business by doing business. Not only are we known for MAP, now we are consistently ranked in the top five in the entrepreneurship space. We have a Commercialization Fund, a Social Venture Fund and the Wolverine Venture Fund. We even now have an accelerator that is incubating new startups. That ecosystem, to me, is second to none in the world.

Then you layer on top of that the experiences we are creating for students that are getting them closer to the experience of real business. MAP has always been consulting-like. But now we have students not only developing strategies for businesses but also implementing them. As an example, our students recently developed a strategy for hospital organization in Uganda. Then they went there and implemented it. And then they served on the board. We are creating these experiences that are truly transformational and deeply connected to our mission to develop business leaders who really understand how to use business to make a positive difference in the world.

CA: You have a proven track record of developing leaders. What leadership lessons that you’ve perhaps taught others do you think you will draw on most as Ross’s next dean?

SD: In any new leadership transition, job number one of a new leader is to surround yourself with people who are talented, experienced and aspirational. Job number two is to engage the community—faculty, staff, students, alumni, corporate partners—and do a lot of listening and learning. Any new leadership situation needs to involve reaching out and being proactive and engaging with your community—listening and learning from them so you can develop a strategy and work with them hand in hand to create a path forward.

CA: What is the most important thing you’ve taken away from watching your predecessor in the role of dean?

SD: Dean Davis-Blake has done a tremendous job of being an advocate for working across this university. What I mean by that is that we are, at our core, about business education and developing that next generation of business leaders. But business is a very cross-cutting endeavor in the following sense. If you are in the business of healthcare or you want to go into healthcare, there is an enormous amount to learn from our school of medicine.

Even if you want to go into finance—many of the banks I work with now are as worried about technology companies as they are about other banks. No longer can you train leaders in finance by only thinking about finance. You have think about technology and the digital disruption that is happening across the industry. Here you have a classic business function that is being completely disrupted by something completely outside of finance. If all you did was stay inside the business school, you would never fully understand the landscape.

Dean Davis-Blake has done an incredible job of working across the university to develop cross-cutting, cross-disciplinary initiatives. There are 130 graduate programs on our campus, and more than 100 of them are ranked in the top 10 of their field. That has significant implications for what we can do in terms of developing that next generation of business leaders because the breadth of expertise at this university is second to none. What Alison has done in this regard is remarkable, and I fully intend to continue that line of thinking and our commitment to continue creating experiences for students by leveraging the extraordinary assets on this campus.

You are an award-winning teacher. Will you miss it?

SD: Yes. I love the opportunity to teach. I really see it as a service and an opportunity, and I have loved over the last nine years here at the University of Michigan having the opportunity to teach our wonderful students.

As dean I won’t be able to do as much teaching as I have historically done, but I will get to engage with students in other ways. At our core, what I care deeply about is helping our students reach their aspirations. As dean I now get the opportunity to engage with our students in different ways that will continue to enable them to achieve their aspirations.

At the same time, as dean I get to invest in our faculty who are on the front lines working with our students in creating these truly transformational experiences for them. So the opportunity to continue to have a direct impact on the students is there, but now I will also have an opportunity to invest in our faculty and carry on the tradition and commitment to teaching at the business school. That is something that is really important to me.

CA: You were named associate dean for executive education in 2014 and then also took on responsibility for the part-time and EMBA programs? Have you been groomed for this role?

[Laughs.] I don‘t know if it was intention. I don’t think that was the case, but I do think Alison did a remarkable job of building a superb leadership team around her. Amy Dittmar, who was dean of graduate programs and diversity has gone on to be vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs here at Ross. Valerie Suslow, who was senior associate dean for MBA programs, has gone on to become vice dean of faculty and research at Johns Hopkins. So Alison has done a tremendous job of building the leadership talent around her, but I don’t think I was being groomed for this role per se. But I certainly learned a lot from her and am sure that will pay dividends in the future.

CA: You’re not yet 40. Does being one of the youngest business school deans present any specific challenges?

SD: [Laughs.] I have honestly never thought about age. In my entire career, I have always been one of the younger folks in the room if you will—whether in private equity investments or management consulting. I have learned that age doesn’t matter. What matters is your ability to connect with other people and really serve and enable those people to be successful.

I am a people-first leader. My focus is on the growth of our people and our team and if I do that well, then I have done my job. I have never thought about age in that regard.

CA: Will Dean Blake remain on as part of the faculty?

SD: The current plan is for her to come back to the faculty but Dean Davis-Blake has an enormous talent and extremely high aspirations for what she would like to do and the impact she would like to have in higher education. I expect nothing short of remarkable things from her. What she chooses to do in the future, that will be her decision. But I expect nothing great things for her because her entire career what she has been able to achieve and give has been incredible. She is on a remarkable run, and the sky is the limit for what she can do.

CA: What do you do for fun?

SD: These days my new chocolate lab puppy—Oki—he is keeping me busy. I am also a fitness and adventure fanatic, so whether it’s running through the woods here in Ann Arbor or being on a lake or climbing a mountain somewhere, I am happiest then.

*Photo courtesy of the Ross School of Business