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Sri Zaheer, new Dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Incoming Carlson School dean brings outgoing charm

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY
  • Star Tribune
  • March 11, 2012 - 11:17 AM

Like her predecessor, the new dean of the U of M's Carlson School of Management, Srilata Zaheer, got her start in business before moving into the academic world.

And both Zaheer and Alison Davis-Blake, who left last year to head the University of Michigan's business school, are women -- who comprise less than 20 percent the nation's b-school deans.

But that's about where their similarities end.

Davis-Blake, 53, worked for three years as an auditor before she reentered the academic world for a doctorate and career as a professor and administrator. In the face of millions in state funding cuts, Davis-Blake will be remembered in Minnesota for budget trims, increasing staff productivity and expanding the popular undergraduate school as the more-lucrative MBA program at the Carlson School shrank in recent years.

"She was great for the school and she fixed some things on the inside," said Jim Campbell, the retired Wells Fargo Bank Minnesota chairman and longtime Carlson school board member and fundraiser. "If the Carlson School were a car company, you could say we make better cars. Now we have to work on the 'outside.'"

And if deans were cars, Zaheer would be considered the flashier model. While Davis-Blake eschewed schmoozing, Zaheer enjoys it.

And selling the school is increasingly important in light of continued state funding pressure and the fact that the Carlson School's primary rival, the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, is known as "St. Thomas Inc." for its strong ties to the deep pockets of Minnesota's business community.

"Clearly, a very strong mandate I have is to strengthen our relationship with the corporate community, our alumni and other stakeholders," Zaheer said in an interview last week. "I've thoroughly enjoyed that."

Zaheer, 58, served as interim dean for the past nine months and as a popular faculty member for 20 years. She has enjoyed a variety of jobs, from secretary to systems analyst to internal auditor and, for five years, a correspondent in Africa and India for a Swiss-based business journal. Zaheer, an Indian immigrant who has an undergraduate degree in physics and a doctorate in business from MIT's Sloan School of Management, fell in love with teaching 30 years ago as a part-time instructor at a state university in Nigeria.

"Sri can captivate a room, she is smart, she is ambitious and she really wants to do this," said Tim Nantell, a longtime Carlson school finance professor who was acting dean for three years a few decades ago. "It's not getting easier."

Total state funding for the school has dropped from just under 20 percent of the budget in 2006 to under 10 percent.

In fiscal 2011, the total Carlson School budget rose 5 percent to $93.8 million, thanks to higher tuition, more gifts and investment income.

Budget pressures have translated into tuition increases for a two-year MBA degree that now totals about $76,000 for state residents. There is pressure to bring in more money from donors, grants and through service contracts.

The number of MBA students dropped from 2,194 to 1,812 over the last school year. It rebounded to 1,850 in 2012. Overall business school enrollment, including the undergraduate school, dropped 6 percent to 4,736 students during the 2010-11 fiscal year.

"We look, think and act like a private school," Zaheer said. "We have to run as efficiently as possible. We also are joined at the hip and proud to be part of the University of Minnesota, still part of this great land-grant institution. And we have to [better] engage our corporate community and private benefactors."

Zaheer's dual mandate is reflected in her $480,000 annual salary. More than half will be paid by privately raised funds.

In the last two weeks, she has met with alumni and benefactors in Naples, Fla., spent a few days in Minneapolis to meet with Carlson board members and university officials who chose her over three external candidates. On Friday she was rushing to catch a plane to Arizona for more development work and a bit of relaxation.

Dileep Rao, an engineer, entrepreneur and former Carlson professor, has ruffled some feathers in financial circles and MBA circles locally by asserting in a recent book that most great businesses are born of entrepreneurs who "bootstrap" their way to success with passion, credit cards, commitment and elbow grease. You don't need a pricey MBA, in other words.

A former colleague of Zaheer's, Rao is a friend and fan, but said she has a tough road ahead.

"Business schools went too far with all that academic research," Rao said, adding that in his view much of it is done just to attract grant money and further academic careers. "I would say the future of the business school is not going to be as easy as it has been in the past. Business schools need to adjust to that reality."

Zaheer -- whose husband, Aks Zaheer, also is a professor at the Carlson School -- is an occasional lecturer. She communicates regularly with former students around the globe in her specialties of international management and business ethics.

She gets her energy from her father, a chemist and Indian-Burmese oil company manager who helped keep British forces running in Burma until the Japanese ran them out in 1942. Zaheer's dad, who stayed after the Brits retreated, was nearly killed later by Australian troops when they found him wandering in the jungle on what became a six-month, malaria-plagued trek home.

Zaheer's late father encouraged his daughter to follow her interests and enjoy life.

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

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