Joel Podolny, the new dean of the School of Management, is a Harvard man. With three degrees from the university, various appointments on its faculty and a three-year stint on the Crimson crew team, Podolny may seem more like a captive prisoner in New Haven than a true son of Eli.
However, Podolny has long had a soft spot for Yale. Ever since he applied some 20 years ago to Yale College — his first-choice at the time — and was subsequently rejected, Podolny has had a personal attachment to what he called Yale’s mission of training leaders in the service of society.
That personal connection will come in handy, Podolny says, as he seeks to refocus the commitment to social responsibility at the SOM with an aggressive set of reforms. Focused on propelling the school into the top ranks of the nation’s business schools, Podolny’s agenda includes reassessing the curriculum and constructing a new central campus for the school in the next four years.
“The school has really gone through a period of needing to create a foundation,” Podolny said. “As a school, we now have a very solid platform for reaching to that next level and joining that pantheon of leading schools … that aren’t only very good schools in of themselves but can really become role models for other institutions.”
Before he was named dean in April, Podolny was a professor at Harvard Business School. He has served as senior associate dean at Stanford Business School and is considered a leader in the field of economic sociology. But unlike his predecessor, Jeffrey Garten, Podolny has little experience in the corporate sector.
Yale’s SOM has long placed below the top tier of business schools in the most widely-viewed rankings. In U.S. News and World Report’s 2006 rankings of the top business schools, Yale placed 15th, behind Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, which ranked in the top three.
Now almost 30 years old, the SOM is ready for a thorough reassessment of its fundamental values, Podolny said. He seeks to mold a clear identity for the SOM: that of a training ground for future business leaders who take seriously their responsibility to society.
“The school was founded with a very noble mission — to educate leaders for business and society,” Podolny said. “I don’t think that has always been communicated to the outside world in a way that is understood.”
“I believe very strongly that if people understood … what is distinctive about graduates of this institution — that they in fact do lead their lives in a way where they take society into account — I think the perception of the school would be higher than it is,” he added.
Podolny has assumed the deanship at a time of transition for business schools across the country, said Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana, who has taught classes and co-authored papers with Podolny. This transitional period — which will be characterized by a reshuffling of leadership among business institutions — gives SOM a ripe opportunity to emerge as a leader, Khurana said.
“As we are increasingly shifting to a post-industrial society, the kinds of environmental changes [in business] are as profound or even more profound as those in the 1960s,” Khurana said. “There will be significant shifts again … Joel has a great opportunity to really elevate the visibility of SOM that hadn’t been there before.”
The emphasis on social responsibility will dictate the course of curricular reforms, Podolny said. Among his ideas is a new series of “Values in Management” seminars, which will ask SOM students to assess their personal values and apply them in practical business situations. Other possible reforms include a more exhaustive mentorship program that would ensure that SOM students have increased guidance and feedback from their professors as they advance through the school’s two-year M.B.A. track.
In his first year as dean, Podolny said he will spend at least 50 percent of his time reaching out to alumni. In addition to the necessity of fund-raising, Podolny said alumni outreach will be crucial in fostering a sense of community for SOM graduates.
Podolny also said plans to move the SOM to a new, centralized campus are definite and that the move should be completed in four years. The SOM’s campus currently consists of unconnected buildings scattered on Hillhouse Avenue and Prospect Street. He said the physical quality of the campus is a barrier to the SOM’s goal of becoming a leading business school.
The construction of a new campus will take into account the refocusing of the SOM’s mission. More seminar-style classrooms will be constructed in order to facilitate the values seminars, as well as provide an environment that encourages faculty-student interaction.
The new campus will also provide space for 300 students, Podolny said. The SOM currently enrolls 215 total students, and although Podolny seeks to retain the SOM’s small size because of the flexibility that it allows, some growth is still needed, he said.
The SOM faculty and students alike seem to share enthusiasm and optimism for Podolny’s agenda. Sharon Oster, who chaired the search committee which chose Podolny, said he has been a success with the alumni so far and an inspiration for both faculty and students.
“We’ve been so far delighted,” Oster said. “He’s full of ideas about curriculum, about new possible people we might be interested in, research ideas, classroom ideas.”
Some students interviewed seem equally pleased. Sara Aviel SOM ’06 said Podolny has managed to bring traditionally disparate parts of the student body together.
“In the past there has sometimes been a tension about whether the school should concentrate on maintaining its socially focused niche or attempt to mirror more traditional business schools,” Aviel said. “I think the dean has inspired students with his unifying focus on principled management in every sector.”