B-school Dean of the Year: Dartmouth’s Paul Danos

December 23, 2014, 5:48 PM UTC
Courtesy of Tuck at Dartmouth

(Poets&Quants) — When Paul Danos arrived in Hanover, N.H., to become dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, Google did not yet exist, Amazon hadn’t launched its online store, Steve Jobs was still two years away from returning to Apple, and Toyota had yet to launch the Prius. The horrific events of 9/11 could hardly be imagined, nor could the Great Recession.

It was 1995, and the school that Danos agreed to lead was, in the words of one of its most famous professors, “in a vulnerable place, like a major league baseball team with a losing record.” Tuck had plunged to 13th place in Businessweek’s ranking in 1994, far from the top five ranking the school received on the magazine’s debut list six years earlier.

Some 20 years later, as Danos prepares to step down from the deanship on June 30 of next year, he will leave an institution that now has his deft fingerprints firmly implanted on every aspect of the school. “Paul Danos transformed Tuck’s faculty into a world-class academic powerhouse, built a gorgeous campus, raised a ridiculous amount of money, moved the school into the top of the rankings, and became the most trusted administrator at Dartmouth,” says Paul Argenti, a long-time Tuck professor of corporate communications. “We shall never see the likes of him again.”

For his extraordinary 20-year tenure and for the vast improvements he has led at Tuck, Poets&Quants names Danos its Dean of the Year. Few leaders have had the kind of impact over a prestige institution. Roughly half of the B-school’s 10,000-plus living alumni will have graduated under Danos’ deanship, while 75% of the faculty have been hired while he held the dean’s office. At a time when the average term of a B-school dean is a mere three-and-a-half years, Danos has been the longest serving dean of any top business school in the world, and he has used that time wisely.

Under his watch, the school expanded the size and scope of its programs, adding nine centers and initiatives, a master’s in health care delivery, a fast-track summer business program for undergraduates, as well as an expansion of the B-school’s executive education portfolio. During his deanship, Danos also built up the school’s reputation for academic research by bringing in thought leaders such as Ken French in finance and Kevin Keller in marketing.

He grew Tuck’s full-time faculty from 34 to 55 members, and increased full-time enrollment by a third, to four incoming sections of 60 students each from three when he arrived. Danos raised the school’s endowment from $59.2 million to $310 million, and he oversaw an increase in the participation rate of alums for Tuck’s annual giving campaign from 63%, when the effort raised $1.6 million, to an unprecedented 70%-plus, with funds of $6.4 million. Most top 10 business schools have giving rates in the 20% range.

“Overall, he has just improved the quality of the place on every single dimension, from the facilities to the students and faculty,” says Robert Hansen, senior associate dean who served as the chairman of the search committee that brought Danos on campus. “On every front, he has always tried to make the school better. I don’t think we’ll ever find somebody who so selflessly works for the institution.”

Yet, among Danos’ most lasting achievements is what he didn’t change. Under his leadership, Tuck maintained and even built upon its unique and open culture: a smart, friendly place known for an esprit de corps that creates deep bonds among students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Danos fit that culture like a glove, making himself accessible, frequently walking the halls, creating recognition celebrations for staff, auctioning off for charity an annual crayfish dinner that he prepared for students, and maintaining an open-door policy.

“At any top school, you get really smart students who are energized by what they are doing,” says Connie Helfat, a strategy professor who had taught at Wharton and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management before joining Tuck in 1998. “What’s unusual at Tuck is the loyalty they have to the place and the bonding they do with each other. I have never seen anything like this. It just permeates the place, and Paul has been fundamental to how well the school has done.”

Described by colleagues as a no-nonsense pragmatist, Danos is an unassuming gentleman, whose passions include writing and cartooning. In his office, where he works at a standup desk due to a weak back, one cabinet holds photographs of his wife, his two daughters and three grandchildren, and dozens of his cartoons. He gives most of his cartoons to his grandchildren on their birthdays or at Christmas. A favorite of his depicts a fluffy black sheep with the caption, “If one more person asks me, ‘Have you any wool?’ I am going to scream.”

An unlikely academic

Danos, a soft-spoken man with impeccable manners who is now 72 years old, seemed an unlikely academic. His parents were Cajuns, who migrated from the Bayou Lafourche to the West Bank of the Mississippi across from New Orleans in the 1930s. They were hard working, uneducated people who spoke a unique dialect of the French language. Until Danos’ father went into business for himself, the family was poor by modern standards, living in a home with no carpets, drapes, central heating, or air conditioning. There was little discussion about the outside world—on government, on foreign affairs, even sports—in their home.

“As might be true for any young American from a humble subculture whose parents’ first language was not English, I went through a period of lamenting my meager preparation for life and career,” wrote Danos in a book of Cajun stories he wrote called The Other Side of the River. “All of that is gone now, except as a dull memory, but it was real and painful far into my adulthood….”

When Danos was 15, he taught himself accounting and began keeping the books for his father’s business, a supplier to the growing oil industry in the area. He majored in accounting at the University of New Orleans and became a certified public accountant. For five years after college, he worked in accounting for Freeport Moran in New Orleans.

Danos entered an MBA night-program at the University of New Orleans, which gave him a first taste of academia. “I started thinking about applying to PhD programs and started reading what was expected of you,” he recalls. “It was an exciting moment in accounting and finance because it was the time of explosion of data and being able to analyze things. All of that interested me, and I realized you could make a good living in academia as long as you were good enough to get a PhD and publish papers. I found it a viable path.”

Danos was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Texas’s business school. He quit his job and became a full-time accounting adjunct teacher for a year at the University of New Orleans until starting his PhD the following summer. It was a big leap. “There were only two times in my life that I felt I was in over my head: when I started teaching full-time and when I first presented at a PhD seminar. I realized how easy it is to be a critic and how hard it is to be the author of a work.”

After earning his PhD in 1974, Danos was recruited to the University of Michigan’s business school by then Dean Gil Whitaker, who would become a mentor to Danos. Danos taught accounting, chaired the accounting group, and after 15 years in the trenches of academia, he became associate dean and then senior associate dean of the MBA program at Michigan. It was in this role that he, along with Professor Noel Tichy and Jim Danko, now president of Butler University, created what is now the defining attribute of the school’s MBA program: the Multidisciplinary Action Projects, which gathered teams of students to work on real corporate challenges. It would become one of the pioneering experiential programs in business education.

“I had been teaching in the MBA program for some time and it was kind of classic and not all that exciting,” remembers Danos. “We started thinking about what could add an exciting element in the late 1980s.” A committee he chaired designed a new core curriculum, with this experiential addition. “It was pretty radical. We carved out a seven-week block where all the students did was this MAP project. Most experiential things don’t take up half a term, so even today the MAP program is different….” Surprisingly, there was little faculty opposition, even though it meant compressing other courses to make room for the projects.

Then, Tuck called. Danos admits his knowledge of Northern New England was so sparse that he had asked his wife, Mary Ellen, to get out the family atlas to see where Hanover, N.H., was located. When he started the job in July 1995, he found a tight-knit school that had a superb reputation for its teaching faculty, but was light on academic research. Gradating only 180 MBAs a year also made Tuck less attractive to many corporate recruiters. Tuck senior associate dean Hansen recalls a conversation he had with a visiting recruiter from Ford. “I told him, ‘I hope you’re having a good time,’ and he said, ‘So do I, because if I don’t get someone, I don’t know if I’ll come back next year.'”

Bringing research chops to a small, New England school

Danos not only wanted to increase the size of the place, he wanted to do so in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the culture that made Tuck so unique. And he also wanted to recruit more faculty with research chops. It was a move that could have potentially weakened the quality of teaching in the classrooms, but Danos insisted that his newly recruited professors do both.

Initially, Danos focused on recruiting senior faculty with established track records. After building a research environment, hiring shifted to rookie professors. Tuck was at an immediate disadvantage because it lacked a PhD program. To make the school more attractive, Danos reduced teaching loads, gave faculty research budgets they could control, and brought in a staff of full-time computing professionals to help with statistical analysis and database management. Then, the school added a group of Tuck Fellows, full-time staffers to help faculty design cases, run review sessions and help with grading. The faculty came from Duke, MIT, Yale, Harvard and many other top business schools.

Teaching remained an imperative, however. “If we go after someone, they know that teaching is important at Tuck,” says Hansen, who helped recruit faculty to the school. “We live and die on the MBA program.”

Hansen says student evaluations of professors and courses remained extremely high throughout the transformation. Danos agrees. “As we have grown and gotten a more scholarly faculty, we have also improved the spirit of the place,” says Danos. “It is a myth that if you get that kind of faculty you will lose the learning characteristics that everyone wants. Every year 280 strangers come into this place and they form this unbelievable bond over a year and they have it for life.”

The biggest challenge for Danos was “to try to close the circle between the depth of faculty understanding in their fields and a great learning experience in the classroom.”

The result: An innovation called Research To Practice seminars, courses that allow a professor to share research interests with groups of no more than 15 students. “Those seminars,” says Danos, “are as close to closing the circle for MBAs as I have seen anywhere. It’s expensive, but it does something that reconciles this long-standing friction between research and teaching.”

When Danos first proposed the idea, many faculty believed students would have little interest in the seminars. Undaunted, he forged ahead, proved their success, and now there are a dozen of them a year. “Today, these courses are among the highest rated we have,” says Danos. “It allowed me to create something that is compatible with the way I see the ideal business faculty. It feels right from every angle. It touches on the core of why we have academics teaching in business schools, and the students love it.”

Hansen, who taught one of the first seminars on the economics of the credit crisis in the spring of 2009, helped make the idea a success. “In the old days, you might go to a professor’s house for dinner. We still do a fair amount of that. But with 12 students siting around a table and talking about research, you have that interaction at an intellectual plane.”

An informal, authentic leadership style

Throughout the changes, Danos remained highly accessible. For one thing, he likes to walk the halls, stop by the office of a faculty member and informally engage. “He just shows up in your office,” says Helfat. “The first time he did this, I was shocked. I never had a dean show up unannounced in my office. And then I realized he just came to see what I was up to and to chat.”

Sally Jaeger, assistant dean and director of the MBA program, recalls a time two years ago when Danos wandered into her office. “I was at my computer and had just found out that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. He looked at me and immediately noticed I was distressed. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. I told him and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘What can I do?’ Before I knew it, he was putting me in touch with doctors who could help.”

During the 9/11 attacks, Danos was in the Midwest. He immediately cancelled all classes on campus. “Paul literally got a car and driver to bring him back to the east coast because there were no planes,” remembers Ella Bell, a professor of organizational behavior. “From the car, he called everyone from New York asking if they had family there and if there was anything he could do. We had students who lost family members and dear friends. Some of our students had worked in the towers during their summer internships and just came back.

“We came up with a design for our classes that was supportive, nurturing and taking care of the important matters at heart, not just at business. We turned that into an incredible teaching moment. That was under Paul’s guidance.”

Each spring, there’s a charity auction for Tuck’s Center for Business and Society. Danos always auctions off a crawfish boil for some 20 students. It has become one of the most popular items at the auction. The dean imports crawfish from Louisiana, cooks them up at home, and brings them to Tuck to be served to students.

Colleagues describe Danos as an extremely ambitious but unselfish idealist. “I have known many deans who want to leave their stamp on an institution,” says Giovanni Gavetti, a Tuck professor of business administration who has taught at both Harvard Business School and Wharton. “I don’t think Paul cares about that. He is singlehandedly obsessed with the quality of the experience for the student. On that front, he has delivered.”

Danos has an annual one-on-one meeting with each faculty member to discuss their research. The meetings last 90 minutes. “He talks about your research and he knows everything about it,” says Gavetti. “I suspect he had read some of my papers because he has a fairly intimate knowledge of my research and my plan to develop it. And he tells you what he thinks. Once he told me, ‘I think that is bullshit. Why are you doing that?’ I never heard anything like that from a dean.”

When Danos announced his retirement last spring at a school meeting, he received a standing ovation from faculty and staff. “They would not sit down until I begged them to so Paul could say a few words,” recalls Hansen. The reaction of Ella Bell, who had joined Tuck as a professor 15 years ago and considers Danos her mentor and ‘Big Cheese,” was typical. She cried. We are very hopeful that we will get a phenomenal new dean,” she says, “but Paul leaves big footprints to follow.”

Ask Danos what most fills him with pride among all of his accomplishments over those 20 years, and he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s the ability to bring these two worlds together, the world of research and the great classroom experience,” he says. “It’s like standing up in a birch canoe. It’s easy to tip. You have to have quite a bit of balance to keep it going down the stream because it tips over fairly easy. To be able to do that and keep the team in a stable way is something that is gratifying to me. It’s a good feeling.”

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