Haverford — Winter 2013
Change Language:
Good For Business
Michelle Martinez

As dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business, Joan T.A. Gabel ’88 nurtures the next generation of executives and entrepreneurs.

Joan T. (Alexander) Gabel ’88 admits she gets a certain pleasure out of solving tough problems. That may be why, when she was appointed dean of the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri in the wake of the Great Recession, she immediately dug in, spearheading a collection of initiatives to prepare graduates for Business 2. 0. Since her 2010 appointment, the college has introduced a new executive M.B.A. program, designed for working professionals; created an Entrepreneurship Alliance, which provides vital insights and resources to students seeking to develop new businesses; and developed strategies to take the business school into the digital world without compromising the University of Missouri’s strong belief in real-world participation.

Gabel’s role as dean is a world away from her academic beginnings as a 16-year-old philosophy major at Haverford, and even a departure from her career as a junior litigator after receiving a law degree from the University of Georgia. The thread that ties it all together, she says, is her love of unraveling seemingly intractable problems. Gabel previously served as DeSantis Professor and chair of the Department of Risk Management/ Insurance, Real Estate and Legal Studies at the Florida State University College of Business and director of international relations there. She served on the faculty of the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University for 11 years, where she was also interim director of the Institute of International Business and faculty director of the Atlanta Compliance and Ethics Roundtable. Gabel and her husband, Gary, an elementary school principal, have three children.

MICHELLE MARTINEZ: How did your philosophy degree from Haverford help guide you into the business world?

JOAN T.A. GABEL: I originally thought I would go to medical school. I changed my mind in the first moment of a class with a philosophy professor, Kathleen Wright. I remember the feeling that it evoked. I had never had to dig this deep. I liked the way it pushed me. I felt improved by it. … That’s my happy place, to be in a new place and exploring it. If it’s hard, it’s fun. I think more in terms of the idea of not just learning a technical skill, but in the context of learning—how to think and problem solve and learn new skills. That’s been the province of liberal arts, but in the applied areas, we’re getting our arms around that now.

MM: Business ethics have re-emerged as an area of global concern, particularly in finance. How has the torrent of recent scandals influenced the way that you educate business students?

JG: I would disagree that there is a disproportionate concentration of unethical behavior in high finance. The behavior relates more to incentives (pay, bonus, market share, etc.) and how those incentives, regardless of industry sector, affect the integrity of decision-making. I also have reservations about whether unethical behavior is increasing, or whether we simply have the means to discover it more readily. In either situation, what it’s done from an educational point of view is to make the case why ethical or good behavior makes good bottom-line business sense.

A lot of the war stories we were telling [from the junk bond era of the 1980s] were old, involving people students hadn’t heard of. It sounded like an abstraction. Post Enron, and now again with mortgage financing scandals—the students understand that they don’t want to be in a $1,000 suit in handcuffs on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. They also realize that the people involved don’t have horns growing from their head, but are people who lost their way for a variety of reasons. They understand that, in the same way that they need to understand a financial statement, they need to find a way to manage through incentives.

MM: You spearheaded the creation of a new executive

M. B.A. program designed for working professionals. How does it differ from a more traditional M.B.A. program?

JG:We entered a saturated market, but we did so with a new product that leverages the best of new technology and active engagement between the faculty member and student. We do about 80 percent through distance learning, but every class has some intensive on-campus piece. We decided that our type of business education mandates personal touch as part of the learning model.

We introduced it this year, on our first cohort of 19 people. We wanted to keep the on-campus piece very limited, with eight required visits in two years. We thought it would feel forced, because they’re not together enough in the real world.But we found that they latched on to each other and worked together more than we required. The full program takes 21 months, and they work hard for it.

MM: You’re leveraging technology for the new executive

M. B.A. program, but is it changing the academic model on a broader basis?

JG: It changes our entire educational model and the entire way that students expect to learn. This is rocking higher education. The main disruption we’re focusing on is the advent of massive open online classes. Stanford offers classes in art intelligence. You don’t have to be a Stanford student. You just need an Internet connection. A hundred and fifty thousand students completed that class, and it doesn’t provide a degree. It’s free, and it’s not fly-by-night. So many top-tier schools are using this technology, it’s becoming a question of whether you are better off getting skills with 150,000 of your closest friends, or whether you’re better off getting [a degree].

MM: How are you responding to the challenge?

JG:We pay attention, but we also have a tremendous discussion about the return on investment of education. You do more as a university student than learn skills in a classroom. What happens in university life is you go through a high phase of personal growth. [There are] the relationships that you develop, the mentoring opportunities that you have, the opportunities to fail and recover, the chance to try things and realize that they’re not for you. Part of who we are is to provide a very special feeling when you are here. What we’re trying to do is what I think private industry does in the face of rapid competition: understand who you are, your strengths, and move forward.

MM: One of your initiatives was to spur entrepreneurship among students from many different backgrounds. Why is this an important endeavor for today’s economy?

JG: Entrepreneurship does have the potential to solve a lot of our problems. There’s data behind it—job growth will come from small business.

But there’s this assumption that to be a successful entrepreneur you have to leave school, live in your grandma’s garage and invent the next iPad—that you have to reject the traditional constraints of school to flex your creative gene. But bread-and-butter growth isn’t always about huge disruptions, it’s about problem solving. Students are starting to see that, and demanding that they learn what they need.

We have a campuswide undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship. And at the graduate level, we have master’s and doctoral students doing major research. So students in the business school do a lot of the due diligence, or science students will pitch in and they’ll help develop the idea into a business plan. We have channels that are available and know how to take advantage of what our students know how to do. That’s the luxury of a comprehensive campus.

Michelle Martinez has reported on international business issues and trends for more than 16 years, traveling everywhere from a Mexican goat farm to an aluminum mill in Siberia to get the story. She lives in Detroit with her husband and son.