Exit Interview: Vanderbilt Dean Eric Johnson On The Future In Music City
Dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Business Eric Johnson, who will step down in June after 10 years. Johnson plans to return to the classroom. Photo by John Russell/Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University’s business school needed a new building. The old one, while perfectly serviceable, was built more than 40 years ago, in the early 1980s.
That was a different era for the Owen Graduate School of Management — not just architecturally, but philosophically, as well. Dean Eric Johnson, who led the fundraising effort that culminated last month in final staff and faculty move-ins in Management Hall, says the shiny $55 million structure re-energizes the campus with a modern centerpiece befitting the B-school’s elite status.
It’s also a fitting monument to the B-school’s 50 years as a Southern-U.S. management education hub.
“When our building was built in 1982, it was a giant red brick wall that we put out to the city, with a few little windows on the top and then some magnolias we were hiding behind,” Johnson says. “My joke during the fundraising time was that if you put a couple garden shacks on top, it would’ve looked like a nice penitentiary — it had that feeling to it.
“I think it was purposeful. We were very inwardly focused into the campus and it really was turning our back on Nashville, as it were. With the new building, we completely flipped that on its head. Now, we’re completely transparent out to the street and we’re really begging people to look in, come in, be part of us. Nashville is so vibrant and the business community here is so vibrant that neighborhood.”
ERIC JOHNSON’S DEANSHIP: A MOMENTOUS DECADE
The opening of Management Hall is a monument to something else, too: Johnson’s tenure as dean, which will end in June after 10 years. It has been a momentous decade. The outgoing dean has presided over a significant expansion of the school’s portfolio of programs, growing beyond the flagship two-year MBA with one-year master’s in finance, accountancy, healthcare management, and marketing. The school launched and then leaned into support for the new programs, and they have flourished as a result.
“We took the MBA thinking around career preparation and placement outcomes to these one-year programs. We invested heavily in career management activities, all the coaching, all the leadership development training, all the things that we were doing in the MBA program, we just migrated over to these one-year programs,” Johnson tells Poets&Quants. “It has had phenomenal results.”
Johnson has brought phenomenal results with him wherever he has taught. He first came to the Owen School as a teacher in 1991, spending eight years at the school — the last three as a tenured associate professor of operations, winning the Dean’s Teaching Excellence Award twice in that span. Johnson then left for Dartmouth College, where he spent 14 years in leadership roles at the Tuck School of Business. He returned to Vanderbilt as Owen’s seventh dean in 2013; after a sabbatical, he says he plans to return to the classroom at Owen in 2024.
‘OUR BASIC PRODUCT IS AS COMPELLING AS EVER’
The success of Johnson’s 10-year deanship can be measured in another way: increased national and international recognition for the Owen School. Growth in innovative programs, the establishment of research collaborations, and the building of world-class facilities contributed to the school steadily moving up in key rankings. From 30th in the U.S. News & World Report MBA rankings when he arrived in 2013, the Owen School climbed to 25th this year. Owen currently sits at 27th in Poets&Quants’ composite ranking, 29th in Bloomberg Businessweek, 21st in Fortune, 41st in The Financial Times’ Global MBA ranking, and 38th in The Economist.
Diversification of offerings, embracing online and more customizable modes of delivery — these are necessary adjustments that Vanderbilt Owen has made that all schools must embrace to some degree in the coming years, Johnson says.
“Our basic product is as compelling as ever,” he says. “It’s just how we deliver it or where and when it’s delivered that I think has changed. Of course, when you talk to the schools with undergraduate programs, they’re all just bursting at the scenes. I’m the odd man in the SEC. I get together with a group of deans of the SEC schools. I’m the one private, graduate-focused business school. The others have big undergraduate programs and they’ve got the opposite problem. They got so many they don’t know what to do with them. Just a crazy number of students that want to learn business. It’s not that business is any less compelling, it’s just how and when we deliver it that’s changed.”
POETS&QUANTS Q&A WITH ERIC JOHNSON, DEAN OF VANDERBILT OWEN GRADUATE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Owen School’s new building is all but complete, and staff have moved in. I’m sure it is on your list of proudest accomplishments. Why don’t we start there? 10 years is a long time, but if you could maybe condense it into what are some of the things you’re proudest of, your legacy?
Eric Johnson: Well, certainly the building piece is a big one. Owen had a decent building. It was a good building, but 1980s-era. It needed a little bit and we built a $55 million building right in front of it and renovated everything and connected the two. It’s a really, really beautiful space. But I think what’s super cool about it, if you’re asking me what I’m proud of — and of course I’m really proud that we built it and it looks great and all that good stuff — there’s a lot of theory and philosophy behind it.
One of the things, when the 1980s building was built, this side of campus was kind of OK, not great. The neighborhood on the other side of campus was teetering along. In fact, back in the 90s, we used to offer faculty low-interest loans if they would move into those neighborhoods. I think there was a lot of fear that we would turn into, whatever. Penn or USC or whatever, where the neighborhood around us just really deteriorated. Consequently, when this building was built in 1982, it was a giant red brick wall that we put out to the city, with a few little windows on the top and then some magnolias we were hiding behind. My joke during the fundraising time was that if you put a couple garden shacks on top, it would’ve looked like a nice penitentiary — it had that feeling to it.
I think it was purposeful. We were very inwardly focused into the campus and it really was turning our back on Nashville, as it were. With the new building, we completely flipped that on its head. Now, we’re completely transparent out to the street and we’re really begging people to look in, come in, be part of us. Nashville is so vibrant and the business community here is so vibrant that neighborhood. Of course, Vanderbilt wishes we had bought a lot more land over there. We bought some, but we wish we’d bought more. Just blown up in such a crazy way.
A lot of the philosophy around this building was to really make ourselves much more connected to the national business community and invite people in, all those things. We’re launching a whole bunch of stuff. We launched a CFO forum that started meeting here a year ago. We’re launching one for board directors that meets here. Same thing with healthcare. We want these groups to be coming to the school and be part of the business community, and that’s a big, big piece of it.
The Owen School mentioned in the announcement about you stepping down at the end of your second term that all of the strategic goals from when you took over have been achieved. After the new building, what are some of the other ones?
Some of the other ones were, we really wanted to diversify our portfolio. The school was basically for the first 40 years of its life, MBA in a couple different flavors. That was it. That was the whole school. One of the things we’ve been doing is building out these one-year programs, master of finance, master of accountancy, master of marketing, masters of healthcare management. We’re still graduate focused. We also built an undergraduate business minor during the last 10 years, which is the most popular minor on campus, as you might expect. But all that, it involves our faculty, but the students here in our building are still all graduate students. We’re still very graduate student-focused, but we have a much more diversified financial model for the school now, which has really been good for us in many ways. It really strengthened us. I’ll say in the category, that was a big part of the strategic plan was this portfolio and building it and strengthening it.
But in the category of proud, one of the things that I’m really proud of and something I’m pushing in AACSB and amongst our other deans and so forth, is we brought the same — I hate to admit it, it’s almost by mistake, but then we realized it was a good thing and ran with it was, we took the MBA thinking around career preparation and placement outcomes to these one-year programs. We invested heavily in career management activities, all the coaching, all the leadership development training, all the things that we were doing in the MBA program, we just migrated over to these one-year programs. It has had phenomenal results. I think you guys probably wrote something on this when you were doing your recaps of one-year programs, but our placement results in MS-STEP, 100% of the students had offers by graduation.
97% of them accepted them. It was just crazy. That was true for our master of accountancy. It’s true from the master of marketing. We put a tremendous amount of emphasis on that. It has really had a huge impact because what’s different, and this you can go do the research on and you’ll see it, is that there are many schools, great schools that treated these one-year programs as cash cows and really built big international programs around them, but very few domestic students and then really struggled to place them. And then that struggle got harder in the Trump administration, even harder in COVID and all these kinds of things. When you look at their placement results, many of them aren’t publishing their results. They’re not very transparent for lots of reasons because they’re not great. But we really have always had such a strong focus there that it has made it easy for us. We’ve been growing these, not just launching them but growing them. We doubled the size of that MS-STEP program since you visited and still see this amazing placement results.
It’s that focus on that. I honestly think as an industry, it’s something we continually need to be talking about because we have a lot to be proud of as an industry. Even though I’m picking on some of the other schools, I think in general, we are very outcomes focused. Within universities at large, we are the leaders in terms of really tracking and understanding the outcomes for our students and be able to articulate the ROI and measure it and show it and all these kinds of things. So much of that discipline, the very best is in the business schools. It’s not just because they get great jobs, but it’s also just the nature of our industries that we are really outcomes focused. Many, many universities don’t even know where their students go. Outside of business, they probably, well, we hope you get a job, have a nice life. That’s not been true for us at all.
What are your thoughts on the graduate business education landscape? It’s a challenging time in a lot of ways: We’re coming out of COVID and we may be going into an economic downturn. A lot of people are forecasting that, but some people are suggesting it might be a little longer. What do you think about the landscape right now?
I think what’s interesting for us, of course, and we all wring our hands a lot, but when you look at business in general in higher ed, it’s the best of times and maybe the worst of times all boiled together in a certain way. But there’s no lack of interest in what we bring to market, but there is no doubt changes in the way prospective students want to consume our products. If you just focus on MBA, yeah you can see some structural changes that have been going on, maybe were accelerated in recent years. The MBA still is this phenomenal product that even with all of our hand wringing, I still argue it’s the best or close to the best value on campus in terms of graduate education. They may be getting a master’s in computer science or something, or data science.
Some of those things can do just as well. But we just routinely turn in great ROI and last year was no exception. Whether that’ll continue this next year, we’ll see how the spring rolls, but there’s no reason to believe it won’t be a good year all in all. We’re still seeing a really good year for our MBA students, but I think there is no doubt that there is a steady, slow transition around where people are picking up business skills, whether it’s in undergraduate, whether it’s in one-year programs, whether it’s in lots of other non-degree programming. We’re doing a lot of more of that ourselves, as is most folks. We’ve been launching a full set of non-degree online programming. We’re launching one right now in healthcare, for example, which is a big piece of our pie and another thing we’re really proud of here around healthcare. But I think all of those do bode changes for the MBA marketplace.
No doubt about it. I think we all have to ask ourselves, is the MBA model of waiting four or five years to go back, get a degree? That model is always going to serve a group of folks that are pivoting. It’s a uniquely American idea that you can reinvent yourself at 30 or something. Outside of the U.S., the Europeans never really got that. The thing about one-year programs and all these other things is that whole notion of reinventing yourself at 30. In Switzerland, you’re left or right at Elm Street at eighth grade or whatever. You’re going to the factory or you’re going to the university. The stamp gets put so early. The American optimism that we really benefit from in the MBA space is, “Hey, you can reinvent yourselves.” I think that promise of MBA education is as true today as it’s ever been and we are delivering on that promise. But I think the thing that’s different is, people need to come back and get an MBA to pursue further advancement in Goldman or Bain or BCG or whatever. If they’re already there, they’ve got a set of business skills and they’re doing well — do they necessarily have to come back and get an MBA? That piece feels like that has structurally changed.
Fewer are saying yes to that question. Or they’re finding other great ways to pick up the business acumen versus necessarily coming back to a two-year experience. I just think over my career. I spent 14 years at Dartmouth before here. We had a steady diet of these folks that had reached the three-year point at Goldman and someone tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Time to go back and get your MBA.” I think that whole mindset or that group is not taking that path as it once did.
Which means schools will have to diversify their offerings just like the Owen school has been doing, right?
I absolutely believe that. I think we’ll all find ways that our basic product is as compelling as ever. It’s just how we delivered or where and when it’s delivered that I think has changed. Of course, when you talk to the schools with undergraduate programs, I mean they’re all just bursting at the scenes. I’m the odd man in the SEC. I get together with a group of deans of the SEC schools. I’m the one private graduate focused business school. The others have big undergraduate programs and they’ve got the opposite problem. They got so many they don’t know what to do with them. Just a crazy number of students that want to learn business. It’s not that business is any less compelling, it’s just how and when we deliver it that’s changed.
You’re going to take a sabbatical and then it’s back to the classroom?
I am. Absolutely.
I’ve read so many things about you over the years and so many ways that it makes clear that you love to teach. Do you know what you might teach when you get back in front of students?
I absolutely do, and I’m really excited to get back to writing some new cases and thinking about some new problems. I’m doing some work here right now on impact investing. We’re putting together a little class around that for the spring to work with our Black, brown minority-owned businesses in Nashville to help find alternative paths to capital for them. But likewise, I’m just as excited about thinking about how AI and machine learning are impacting corporate digital strategies. A lot of my work prior to this sitting here in the dean’s office, I was director of a center called the Center for Digital Strategies at Tuck.
We spent a lot of time just thinking about how technology drives corporate strategy and it’s such an exciting time in that space. There’s just so much going on. I spent some time this summer in Milan with my old partners from Dartmouth. We run a global CIO group. I’ve kept my finger and just listen to the CIO of Nestle or Exxon or Tetrapak or you name it. Every one of them is faced with just unbelievably interesting problems and challenges in that digital space and just continues on. I’m really excited about that.
I have to get your thoughts about the last two years of COVID and how you feel the school’s leadership and the students, the whole school community, rose to the occasion in the most challenging times. And then I’d also like to get your thoughts on if your term had ended in the middle of COVID, how would you have felt about that? Would you have maybe tried to stay on and see this ship through the storm, so to speak?
I think to jump to that one, absolutely. I think in a perfect world, I might have finished my building a couple years ago and be on to something else already. But I think most leaders in academia at that time, they just saw it as a pivotal moment. Ultimately, for Owen and for Vanderbilt, it was a great moment. We were actually really proud of what happened during COVID, but we were a little unique. We’re sitting in a red state, so that definitely changed things. We were the blue dot in a red state, as it were. But what that meant is that we were in person outside of the last little bit of March and April, we were in person the whole time and we were back in August in person. It was weird.
It was everybody sitting 6 feet apart and testing twice a week and all that kind of stuff, but we muscled through in person and I think we’re better for it. We had a new chancellor that came in right at that time and he really challenged us and I think gave us a lot of energy in that regard. One of the things we did as an institution, he put a hundred million dollars out to the deans and said, go hire people right now. This is going to be the best academic job market we’ll ever see. He was right. He helped all the schools pick up a few years of salary of faculty to go out and then opportunistically hire. We were hiring. I hired half a dozen, eight faculty in that period of time. It was true. So many schools had just stopped or frozen.
To be on the market in that time, it allowed us to hire some really, really great talent. We really doubled down. The same thing with the building. We launched the building in the middle of COVID and my only regret is I wish we could have started COVID. Because it turned out to be the perfect time to be building. Everybody is already disrupted and most of them are working at home and all that kind of stuff. Just double down and get going building. It turned out to be a great moment. I would say if there was a concern I have, and you hear this everywhere, it’s just thinking about how COVID affected the mental health of everyone in the process as students, faculty, staff. I don’t think we’re out of that yet. We’re seeing echoes of it for sure. The kids coming into undergraduate, they just coming in after a very disrupted high school experience. It no doubt changed how we think about mental health and wellness on campus and the energy we put into it, because it is just a bigger issue. No doubt about it.
It also changed, for a lot of schools, their approach with online delivery, or at least their views of online delivery. For a lot of schools, it accelerated online delivery. Same for you guys, right?
No doubt. Yeah. Just the really funny experiment that was run there in the sense that if you had asked most academic leaders before COVID, they would’ve said, well, the students would hate online. I should say the faculty would hate online learning and the students would love it in some way, shape, or form. It actually turned out to be the reverse of that in many ways. The faculty, who had in many ways been the least interested in online learning, found that it liberated their lives in ways that they’d never imagined. The students actually missed the in-person experience far more. They loved the flexibility, but then they realized how much they were losing out of that. Coming back, I think even today, I think that there’s a lot of universities that have struggled to get the faculty to come back to the classroom because they’re like hey, I can teach my class from London, that’d be great. Or Hawaii or wherever. I don’t want to have to whatever, fight the Bay Area traffic and live in Oakland and fight my way over to Berkeley.
You’re not leaving till the summer. Do you have any surprises up your sleeve between now and then? New degree programs announced? Any news you want to make?
Well, like I said a moment ago, we are doubling down on some of the non-degree certificate kinds of things. We’re launching right one right now in the healthcare space to help working professionals build up their business skills in the healthcare vertical. We’re doing one like that in partnership with University of British Columbia on sustainability. These are hot issues and they’re hot all over. ESG is hot for us. There’s so much good stuff going on in that space, both in our building and then this online piece that we’re launching, along with healthcare being big. Data science, we’ve been really doubling down on that as an institution and building it particular into the finance side of our house, but also much more collaboration across campus around that, which is interesting.
I think business schools historically became in many ways pretty isolated on campus. They built their kingdoms and many of them had strong financial bottom lines and were able to build lots of things themselves and go their own way. I think a lot of these other trends now, whether it be data science or sustainability and so forth, really just beg us to collaborate more on campus. We feel that for sure. If you look at those topics I rattle off, healthcare, ESG, data science. These are all places where we really value our partners on campus and a lot of the neat things we’re doing. We just launched, for example, this thing we call the Healthcare Valuation Lab, where we take master’s of healthcare students and our MBA students to put them together with healthcare startups here in town to help accelerate them. It’s a really great collaboration with the health policy school, which is part of our medical school. But putting these different pieces together I think are just going to become more and more compelling for business schools and a good thing, ultimately, for our industry.
I want to commend, while I have the chance, your communications team, because I think they’re a big part of why it’s so easy to write about you guys and why we are able to do so much about Vanderbilt Owen. You’ve got a great communications team and I just want to mention them.
Absolutely. I feel likewise. One of the things that we did on that front, another piece I’m proud of, but it’s all them: That team really has moved to much more of a content marketing approach where we created a lot more content. We’ve hired some great writers into that team, and we’re writing a lot more interesting content producing a lot more interesting video and so forth that it really has been valuable to our alumni. It got a big boost out of COVID. We branded it with our alumni. We called it Owen and Forward and we started bringing a lot more content to them, both video and online text. They were just gobbling it up then. Of course, in the end was really great into the marketing communications engine to be able to have that content that we were creating, to be able to dice it up and put it out in different ways.
The other partner you have in promoting your school is Nashville. Music City.
It’s fun to see how much Nashville has changed even in the last few years. Really, you can’t over-hype it because it just moves so fast. Even the skyline of the city is mind-boggling for people who’ve been here a long time. When Amazon really ended up, they went through that whole competition for headquarters too, in Nashville. We didn’t win that. We got maybe what was viewed as a consolation prize at that time, but ultimately, I think Nashville ended up being the real winner in that and they’ve built such a huge presence here. But now with Oracle moving here, Alliance Bernstein coming from New York and moving lock, stock, and barrel, just a huge business boost into the city along with all the tourism and other things that were already just cranking along at a furious pace.
Of course, the business school really just reflects that. Our building and so forth just reflects what is this giant economic engine of Nashville that’s just full-on cranking, and COVID just accelerated that at a frightening pace, in many ways.
DON’T MISS END OF AN ERA AT VANDERBILT OWEN AS DEAN ERIC JOHNSON RESIGNS and MEET VANDERBILT OWEN’S MBA CLASS OF 2023
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