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Interview with the Dean: SMU Cox School of Business

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Since 1997, Albert W. Niemi, Jr. has served as the dean of the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University (SMU Cox) in Dallas. He is also currently the Cox School’s Tolleson Chair in Business Leadership, as well as the William J. O’Neil Chair in Global Markets and Freedom.

During his tenure, the Cox School has undergone many changes. He has helped to expand the degree offerings at the business school—expanding the school’s offerings to include four specialized master’s programs as well as multiple interdisciplinary program opportunities and a new Fast-Track MBA—and has also grown the school’s endowment from $78 million to more than $200 million.

This past August, Niemi announced his intention to step down as dean after serving the Cox School for more than 20 years. He will continue to remain in his faculty position but will pass on his administrative responsibilities to Matthew B. Myers, a global marketing and strategy expert with expertise in Latin America who currently serves as dean of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, Ohio.

To mark the occasion, we took the opportunity to interview Niemi about his tenure as dean and to gain his insight into what the future of the Cox School could look like.

Dean SMU Cox
Outgoing SMU Cox Dean Albert W. Niemi Jr.

Clear Admit: What is the one area of your MBA program that you wish prospective applicants knew more about?

Albert Niemi: The thing that I wish people knew, that I’ve learned as a dean for over 35 years—15 at a large public and 20 at SMU Cox—is that universities have cultures. When my older son, shortly before I came to SMU, was going to go back to school to get an MBA, my advice to him as an insider in the business was to go to a school that doesn’t have a doctoral program.

When you look at most of the large public universities, in particular, they have huge PhD programs, and the MBA, culturally, is just an afterthought—it’s a cash generator to support the doctoral program (doctoral programs are very expensive to maintain). So, what I wish people knew is that SMU Cox is a premium MBA program without a PhD program, so the faculty who come to Cox want to teach young men and women who want to become the future business leaders of this great country. We’re not training professors.

CA: In the Dallas area, what sets SMU Cox’s offerings apart from those of other schools? Basically, if someone is looking to go to business school in Dallas, why should they look here?

AN: At a private school like SMU where the tuition is more, you also find a very student-focused faculty. We know that when people come to us they’re going to pay a substantial tuition and they want a life-changing experience for that, and our faculty are committed to giving them that.

The other thing that separates us is that SMU is such a powerful brand in Dallas in terms of its network and corporate connections. We’re sitting here three miles from the heart of downtown Dallas, and I think we’re unrivalled in the way we’ve incorporated the business community. We will teach between 30 and 50 classes per year, and we’ve engaged the corporate community in those classes—venture capitalists will teach our venture capital courses; entrepreneurs teach our entrepreneurship courses. We have a real hands-on experience engaged with the corporate community.

CA: When you became dean in 1997, what was the SMU Cox known for? At the conclusion of your tenure, what is the legacy you’re leaving behind?

AN: When I came here in 1997, we offered one master’s degree—the MBA—we offered it in three formats:

    • We had a full-time MBA that involved two-years of schooling with an internship between the first and second year,
    • We had a Weekend/Executive MBA;
    • And we had an Evening/Professional MBA.

Since I’ve been here, we’ve launched four specialized, one-year master’s programs: Accounting, Finance, Management and Business Analytics. Those programs are large. We will admit more than 300 new students this coming fall in those four specialized master’s programs. Two years ago, we also launched a three-semester (one full calendar year), Fast-Track MBA.

Then we have interdisciplinary programs with all schools—with one exception—at SMU.

    • We have a Master’s in Arts Administration, where you get an MBA and a Master’s in Arts.
    • We also have a three-year JD/MBA program with the Law School.
    • We have a two-year joint program with engineering, called Engineering Entrepreneurship. We have another program in engineering with the Fast-Track MBA, so in one year you get two master’s degrees.
    • We have two joint programs with our School of Education and Human Development.
      • One on Sports Management, which involves internships with pro sports teams,
      • And one we launched this year called Health Promotion Management, which trains people who are going to work in large companies helping people take control of their physical fitness and try to reduce insurance costs.
    • Then, then this coming fall, we’re going to launch a master’s program with our School of Theology on Divinity Management, which will train people who are going into the world of theology with a crash course in business so they can read financial statements, develop business plans, etc.

So, I think our interdisciplinary programs are going to be huge for us going forward.

CA: What program, event, class, etc. are you most proud of implementing or creating during your time as dean?

AN: In 1999, my second year, I launched a program that required every MBA student to have an immersion in the global economy—where every student had to go abroad. Going back 20 years ago, all the major schools had opportunities to go abroad but we were the first school to make it mandatory.

So, the current students just came back from their two-week global immersion experience, and I listened to their presentations along with some people from the first class in 1999 who came back, and a lot of them said that they can still remember what they learned as part of that global immersion and it will stay with them forever.

So, I think for the MBA program, the lasting legacy is that we were the first school to require globalization, and we did it at the end of the first year, so in the second year, every conversation you could assume that your students had that experience already.

CA: What is the one upcoming development or change at SMU Cox that you are most excited about and why?

AN: I’m excited about the interdisciplinary partnerships with the other SMU schools, particularly, the two partnerships with Engineering—one of which is going to start this coming year and one that is in its current year—and the one with Divinity Management that starts next year. I would say that over the next five years, if I were staying, I would get a great deal of satisfaction by watching our partnerships with the other schools at SMU flourish. I think most of the future is going to involve multidisciplinary programs. I think it’s going to be exciting to watch these partnerships group.

The other thing is that I think these partnerships are going to help us get more involved in the community of Dallas. So, many of them focus on improving leadership in our kindergarten through twelfth grade school system. And getting engaged with Dallas and the other Schools is going to be an exciting thing to watch.

CA: What do you think Matt Myers will bring to SMU Cox and why are you excited for his taking over as dean?

AN: Matt Myers has worked for IBM in Argentina, so he’s not an academic who never worked outside. He has corporate experience; he has global experience. He actually went into the Army for three years before going to college, and most of his time was spent in Panama where he picked up Spanish. Then, he went back to get a PhD.

So, I would say that I’m excited for him to bring his corporate experience and global understanding to the School. Also, he’s very comfortable in his own skin, and he’s relaxed. I think he will do extremely well at SMU Cox.

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