Cornell University Johnson at Cornell University

Features

Dean Robert Swieringa: At the helm of a dynamic decade

After ten momentous years as dean of the Johnson School, Dean Swieringa steps down.

By Shannon Dortch

Robert Swieringa walked in the door as the ninth dean of the Johnson School at an extraordinary time. It was July 1, 1997, and the school was buzzing because the following

Dean Robert Swieringa speaking at the dedication of Sage Hall in October 1998.
Dean Robert Swieringa speaking at the dedication of Sage Hall in October 1998.
year would mark the school's move from cramped Mallott Hall to the capacious, historic Sage Hall, newly renovated and converted to a striking, state-of-the-art facility on Cornell's central campus.

Another kind of buzz also pervaded the school because the previous year, in fall 1996, the Johnson School had slumped from 15th to 18th place in Business Week's rankings of graduate business schools – a troubling drop, especially compared to its 1988 ranking as #5. Then-Acting Dean Tom Dyckman rallied the MBA student body and faculty to study, evaluate, and improve every aspect of the school's operations, and to move forward quickly. His leadership galvanized an activist MBA student body determined to improve the school in every way imaginable.

Delfina Govia, MBA '98, then chair of the student-faculty committee as well as class president-for-life, had interviewed Swieringa when he visited campus as a candidate for dean. He brought, she says, a set of credentials and personal qualities that fit well with a business school whose members were stormily debating its future direction.

Swieringa honed his skills at collecting and weighing information before recommending action as a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (1986 to 1996), where he'd been charged with determining the right path forward – an ability critical to the next dean of the Johnson School. Furthermore, he had the passion the job demanded. "When Bob walked in the door as dean, he came with that love of the school, and with a grace and poise that was absolutely critical to our moving forward," Govia says.

When Swieringa joined the Johnson School as its dean, it was a homecoming of sorts. Swieringa had served on the school's accounting faculty from 1974 to 1985, before leaving for his post at the Financial Accounting Standards Board. During those years, he had earned the respect of colleagues and students alike.

Sage Hall cornerstone ceremony Oct. 15, 1997. From left: Dean Robert Swieringa, Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings, Johnson School benefactors Samuel C. Johnson '50 and his wife, Imogene, and Harold Tanner, then chair of the Board of Trustees
Sage Hall cornerstone ceremony Oct. 15, 1997. From left: Dean Robert Swieringa, Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings, Johnson School benefactors Samuel C. Johnson '50 and his wife, Imogene, and Harold Tanner, then chair of the Board of Trustees
"Bob was one of the best teachers in the building, and he got to know almost all the students" recalls L. Joseph Thomas, associate dean for academic affairs.

Daniel Hesse, MBA '77, who took Swieringa's cost-accounting class (team taught with Tom Dyckman) with enough trepidation to prompt him to enroll on a pass/fail basis, enjoyed Swieringa's low-key, clear, and practical teaching style. "He brought the board room and the factory floor into Mallott Hall, and made the material very real," he says. Hesse (who passed the course), claims the experience still serves him well in his role as chairman and CEO of Embarq Corp., a spin-off of the merger between Sprint and Nextel.

The Johnson School's move into Sage Hall in the summer of 1998 set the stage for many of the initiatives realized during Swieringa's decade-long tenure as dean.

"It wasn't just moving into Sage Hall [that made the difference]," Swieringa says. "It's what we've done in Sage Hall since moving in."

The doors of Sage Hall opened to two major new advances – the Parker Center for Investment Research and the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program. Both remain unique among top-tier business schools. Swieringa concurrently drove forward the transformation of the core MBA curriculum to better integrate subject areas while emphasizing teamwork and interpersonal and leadership skills.

During his tenure, the faculty and staff, with help from engaged students and alumni, transformed Johnson School operations to reflect the character of the businesses that support and recruit at the Johnson School, implemented aggressive marketing and communication initiatives to enhance the school's visibility, and restructured its administrative organization to develop deeper and more extensive relationships with corporations.

"We determined that we couldn't just hang out in Ithaca without reaching out to potential corporate partners," Swieringa says. "We're in a highly competitive marketplace, and we needed to put an emphasis on our external face."

The groundwork laid by Dyckman, combined with an activist student body, engaged alumni, and the support provided by Swieringa, culminated in October 1998 with stunning news. In two short years, the Johnson School had recaptured its place among top-10 business schools, placing 8th in Business Week's rankings.

Johnson School Deans, past and present, at the dedication of Sage Hall in October 1998. From left: Alan Merton, Thomas Dyckman, Robert Swieringa, Curtis Tarr, David Thomas, and William Carmichael.
Johnson School Deans, past and present, at the dedication of Sage Hall in October 1998. From left: Alan Merton, Thomas Dyckman, Robert Swieringa, Curtis Tarr, David Thomas, and William Carmichael.
As the Johnson School community celebrated its rankings coup, the dean and his fellow administrators continued to press forward with new programs and initiatives. That year, the student-managed Cayuga MBA Fund was launched, and the following year, the Johnson School became the first top-tier business school to found an Office for Women and Minorities in Business (now the Office of Diversity and Inclusion). The school's Executive MBA program was also launched in 1999.

A gift from the school's longtime friend and supporter, Samuel C. Johnson (1928-2004), endowed a chaired professorship in Sustainable Global Enterprise in 2003, soon followed by the creation of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, the school's second center of research, learning, and practice, after the Parker Center for Investment Research.

In 2004, the Johnson School community developed a five-year plan under Swieringa's leadership, resulting in five strategic initiatives, and has been making steady progress in each area. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Develop Centers of Research, Learning, and Practice. Progress on this initiative leapt forward in 2006 with the founding of the Business of Science and Technology Initiative, focused on the strategic management issues raised by innovation and the commercialization of breakthrough research.
  2. Create the Faculty for Our Future. The total number of Johnson School faculty members has more than doubled in the past 10 years, from 47 in fall 1996 to 101 in fall 2006, including 10 new positions in 2006.
  3. Lead in Diversity and Inclusion. In 2006, the school created its new Business Diversity Partners Program. The Executive MBA program, taught in Palisades, N.Y., saw enrollment of women increase to 30 percent of the incoming class in 2006, up from 13 percent in 2005.
  4. Match Our Programs to the Market. In 2005, the school launched its second executive MBA program, in support of this initiative. The unique Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA, a partnership with Ontario-based Queen's School of Business, employs state-of-the-art interactive videoconferencing to connect learning teams at sites across the United States and Canada.
  5. Extend the School into the Marketplace. The objective to "extend the school into the marketplace" moved forward, with concentrated domestic recruiting for the 2007 academic year. This resulted in a 30-percent increase in applications for the two-year MBA program from the previous year, to 2,170 applications received. As of early April 2007, the number of admitted students making deposits to secure their place in the class was up 38 percent from 2006.

Swieringa would be the first to insist that many people worked on the achievements realized at the Johnson School during his decade as dean, says Associate Dean Joseph Thomas. Yet credit is still due to the man who stood at the helm as the Johnson School successfully navigated increasingly competitive, ever-turbulent waters.

"What's really instructive is to look at how different the school is than when Bob arrived as dean," Thomas says.