Q&A with next dean of Williams School

Rob Straughan will take over the position, effective June 1, 2015

Callie Ramsey

Q: What first brought you to W&L?

A: I originally came because of an opening in my position. I am a marketing professor in terms of my work experience prior to entering academia and my academic training when I went back to grad school and I had been teaching at my alma mater. I thought that was my dream job when I took it and as my interests evolved I started following what was going on at other schools and a position opened up here and I had some very preliminary conversations. Every time I talked to anybody at W&L or anyone who knew the school, I became more and more intrigued.

That was all back in 1999 and the opportunity presented itself after a series of interviews, and I happily made that move. I came here just as a member of the faculty in the fall of 2000 and taught as a member of the business administration department for several years and then moved into the Associate Dean’s role in 2003.

I have continued to teach during that time and will continue to teach even as Dean. But I got more involved in the administration, operations, planning side as a result of that job and found that I was able to scratch two itches as I describe it; I still have the pleasure of teaching classes but the business person in me was able to deal with some of the operational aspects that teaching doesn’t necessarily address. It has really been the best of both worlds for me over the last thirteen years.

Q: Since you plan to continue teaching, will that be in a more limited capacity?

A: Yes. As Associate Dean I taught even less than when I originally accepted a position here, but I am hoping to maintain my same teaching load, a couple classes a year. W&L is unusual in the sense that their practice of having deans who stay active in the classroom is unusual compared to other schools. On the other hand, I don’t know that I would still want the job if I couldn’t keep teaching. It’s a way for me to stay in touch with my discipline: the pressure of getting up and prepping classes and leading discussions on evolving matters in the business world puts me in a position where I have to stay current, and I like that.

I get to know the students in a different way, if I’m in the classroom with them and involved in advising and those sorts of activities, as opposed to simply handling the broader administrative responsibilities. To me, it’s a perk of the job that we’re still able to maintain a presence in the classroom and identity as faculty members, as opposed to dealing one-hundered percent of the time with the administrative side.

Q: What are your plans for the Williams School?

A: Continue to build on the strengths that exist today. We have placed a lot of emphasis on key strategic initiatives: globalization, interdisciplinary, those sorts of things that I think are important not just to the Williams School but to W&L as a whole. We’re going to continue to push on those. I can point to, for example, almost every faculty member we have added in the fifteen years that I’ve been here, who brings some sort of expertise. That’s not by accident. It’s very purposeful on our part, and I see that as an ongoing challenge.

How can we get more students to study abroad? How can we open up internship opportunities abroad? How can we expand the job placement opportunities or grad school placement opportunities that are available to our students that build on a growing awareness of broad global issues? I think if I looked at it differently, the university as a whole is nearing the end of a very important capital campaign, an important period of time in the history of the school, both from a financial standpoint and a strategic standpoint, independent of the endowment that’s been raised during this campaign. President Ruscio has challenged all of us to begin to formally think about the next phase of the university’s strategic plan. For us in the Williams school, we realized it was going to be hard to move aggressively on that until the question of who was going to be the dean was resolved.

Now that it is resolved, I feel it is important to move pretty quickly, so I am going to put together a process where we as a faculty and other stakeholder groups will engage in some formal discussions of what the next ten to fifteen years might hold. Some of the themes will be moving forward on the past strategic plan, but almost certainly there are going to be new programs that will surface, new ideas from faculty that may not have been here in the early 2000s when we developed the current strategic plan. It’s an exciting moment to think about how we will get to contribute to the next chapter.

Q: What are you most excited about? Do you have any personal goals?

A: My personal goal is to continue the legacy of W&L and the Williams school. I can look at any point in time that I have been here, where the student body gets stronger, the faculty gets stronger, the network of alumni and other supporters of the institution, grad school recruiters, job recruiters, parents, on and on, seems to get stronger and stronger each year. The evidence, in terms of the programming opportunities that present themselves to us, is really inspiring.

There are so many great moments here where you see programs evolve rapidly that bring together all of these different groups: students, faculty, alumnae, parents, and so on. A big part of my job is to continue to build on the momentum that Dean Peppers and others that have come before me have provided for the institution. It’s the best job in the world. It really is fun to see all those pieces come together, so I look forward to that.