After Steve Jobs’ death in early October, a former School of Management dean continues to lead one of the Apple CEO’s most mysterious projects — one that could help to continue Jobs’ legacy at the company.
Three years ago this week, Joel Podolny resigned from his post as SOM dean two years before the conclusion of his five-year term. He now serves as dean of Apple’s “university,” an executive training program that was Jobs’ brainchild. Back in 2008, several professors told the News that they were shocked by Podolny’s abrupt departure, and his work has remained a mystery since then. But two sources close to Podolny told the News that his personality and academic experience justified the switch.
“[Podolny’s brilliance] was there when we were at school,” James Messina, Podolny’s former undergraduate roommate at Harvard University, said. “You know it when you see it, and you wish you could be that insightful.”
Details on Apple University remain murky, with no Apple spokespeople willing to speak openly on the subject, but several news sources have reported that the project will train future Apple leaders to think like the company’s late CEO. In an article in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month, one anonymous former Apple executive said that Jobs was looking to preserve his legacy through the university.
“The idea was to take what is unique about Apple and create a forum that can impart that DNA to future generations of Apple employees,” the executive said. “No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful.”
Messina told the News that Podolny, who could not be reached for comment, was faced with an incredibly difficult decision when he was offered the position at Apple. To join the multinational corporation, he had to leave SOM in the midst of an overhaul at the school, which was restructuring its curriculum and planning for its new campus.
In his first year as dean, he led a revision of the academic curriculum to emphasize a cross-disciplinary approach, which he said at the time was necessary for successful business. Designs for the new campus, which he helped develop, were still in their nascent stages when he left, and only last spring did construction begin. University President Richard Levin called Podolny a “great initiator of projects,” adding that his ideas were still carried out in his absence.
Messina said he is often asked whether Podolny sacrificed his aspirations for the SOM in favor of a better paycheck at Apple, but he insisted that Podolny is not a “sell-out.” When faced with a difficult decision, the former SOM dean told Messina that he could not pass on the chance to work with the legendary Steve Jobs, Messina said.
While Podolny had been “blessed with many gifts,” Messina said, he always worked hard and tried to make the most of every opportunity. Messina added that the former SOM dean’s constant search for perfection set an example for those around him.
Before Podolny arrived at Yale, he was a professor at Harvard Business School. Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard faculty member who said he worked extensively with the former SOM dean, said Podolny’s academic career began in sociology, where he studied social networks. Later, Khurana said Podolny’s work shifted to research on how people perceived value. He examined people’s opinions of everything ranging from wine to art, which he theorized is often swayed more by their aesthetic quality and socially constructed appeal than on actual economic value, Khurana said.
There are websites dedicated to following rumors about Apple’s products, creating buzz around upcoming releases, and several product-review websites, such as CNET, have ranked Apple computers as the best designed on the market.
Other companies have instituted corporate universities in the past, including the McDonald’s Hamburger University of McDonald’s and Pixar’s eponymous Pixar University. Jobs, who acquired Pixar in 1986, called the decision to build Pixar University “the best thing we ever did” in a 2008 video interview produced by Pixar.
Rumors from several news sources said that Jobs had personally recruited Podolny, but Jobs has never officially explained the decision to hire the former SOM dean. But in the 2008 interview with Pixar, But Jobs has said in the past that he hired individuals, such as the dean of Pixar University, because he was impressed by their previous accomplishments.
“We have to hire people smarter than ourselves,” Jobs said in the 2008 interview.
Jobs founded Apple in 1976.