Eclectic dean's Opus School wins kudos

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2011 - 9:00 PM

Chris Puto

Photo: Mike Ekern, University Of St. Thomas

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Dean Chris Puto, one of the marketers behind the immortal "Have It Your Way" campaign at Burger King in the early 1970s, didn't exactly follow the traditional academic route to the CEO's office at the University of St. Thomas' Opus School of Business.

There was the tour as an Army officer in Vietnam, a decade-long corporate career, a couple of years as an Austrian ski bum after that and a hitch as an adjunct faculty member at Appalachian State in North Carolina that helped launch him toward a doctorate in business at Duke University.

His eclectic background shaped his thinking about what should constitute a well-rounded business school. When Puto arrived in 2002 at Minnesota's largest business school from dean of the business school at Georgetown University, the mandate was clear: St. Thomas, best known then for part-time business faculty with a wealth of street experience, wanted to be the first private university locally, behind the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, to win accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

The certification was awarded last week, years after the debate ended over whether St. Thomas would remain largely a practice-oriented business school program or become an institution with a core of full-time faculty with PhDs who also produce academic research.

Puto, a guy who's comfortable in the lab or with a microphone in his hand, says accreditation, after all the pomp and notoriety, just means St. Thomas stakeholders can have it their way.

"I bridge these worlds of business and pointy-headed academic people," Puto said the other day, armed with statistics and findings supporting UST's newfound standing. "We have hired 52 full-time business faculty members, for a total of 105 [since Puto arrived] from big national schools such as Northwestern, Wharton, Stanford, Duke, Minnesota and Nebraska. We also have 135 adjunct faculty.''

At St. Thomas, students integrate the teachings of a professor at ''50,000 feet'' as well as one who walks over to class "from his job on 'the street,''' Puto said. "That's what's special here. And this is a wonderful affirmation of the quality of our education. People come here to be on the leading edge of their field. They don't need to publish one major article in a research publication every year .... we also want them to win teaching awards."

While championing accreditation for his school, Puto also has pushed the AACSB, on whose board he once served, toward broadening its once-narrow standards around full-time faculty and researchers to "affirm the value of adjunct faculty in helping schools accomplish their missions."

Over the last several years, St. Thomas added a full-time day MBA program; added full-time faculty, most of whom make $100,000 to $250,000; built new classroom buildings at a cost of nearly $50 million on the graduate (downtown Minneapolis) business campus and on the undergraduate campus in St. Paul; consolidated both schools under Puto, and raised the business school endowment to $70 million.

No wonder this outfit is known as "St. Thomas Inc.," aka "Notre Dame of the Tundra."

(Disclosure: I proved on a bet 25 years ago that anybody who could fog a beer glass or write a check could get a St. Thomas MBA. But I don't think I would be admitted nowadays. Only 5 percent of the world's business schools get the AACSB certification.)

"This accreditation represents the highest achievement for an educational institution and its college of business," said John Fernandes, CEO of AACSB.

Still, MBA enrollment is down most places, including St. Thomas, thanks to competition from more than two dozen MBA-offering schools in Minnesota alone.

At UST, where a two-year MBA costs about $50,000 (or about $10,000 less than the U's Carlson School of Management), the number of MBA students has declined from 3,100 to about 1,750 over the last decade. Puto said the decline, some by design, has been supplanted by short courses and seminars taught by the faculty to more than 4,000 people annually from business, nonprofits, displaced-worker programs and elsewhere.

"We only let the most talented teachers in these programs," Puto said. "That's a profit center that fuels our academic programs and research."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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