When she spoke with Poets&Quants, Lillian Mills, dean of University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, was gearing up for what she calls celebration season. She was slated to attend five separate commencement ceremonies, celebrations for research and teaching awards, and a sendoff for PhD students.
Out of her window, she could see students and their parents taking photos as they prepared for graduation.
This time of year, she often thinks back to her mentor, University of accounting professor Dan Dhaliwal. He told the same graduation story to students and faculty all of the 10 years she worked with him, and it always brought her to tears.
“He grew up in a farming community, and in a farming community, you spend all year plowing, fertilizing, sowing, weeding, praying for rain. You do all of that through the long season, and then it takes everyone in the village to bring in harvest,” says Mills, who has led the McCombs school since 2021, when she became the school’s first female dean in 99 years.
“But when you do bring in the harvest, it’s the party of the year. You feast until midnight.”
For Mills and the McCombs’ faculty, students are the harvest.
A YEAR TO CELEBRATE
McCombs has a lot to celebrate of late. In June, it will welcome its first cohort of its new online version of its highly ranked, highly popular Master of Science in Business Analytics. McCombs launched its full-time residential MSBA about eight years ago, driven almost entirely by demand from corporate partners. Its 2022 graduates with previous work experience accepted jobs with an average starting salary of $127,000 at companies such as Whole Foods, Dell, Indeed, top consulting firms, Amazon, and others.
McCombs is also coming off an impressive showing in U.S. News and World Report’s 2023-2024 business school ranking, finishing 20th overall. In addition, it was named the top Accounting school for 17th straight year in U.S. News’ specialty rankings – the 31st year it has placed in the top five in the category. It also tied MIT Sloan and NYU Stern School of Business with seven top-10 specialization ranks, including No. 4 in Information Systems (the school’s 30th year in the top five), No. 4 in Project Management, No. 7 in Business Analytics, No. 9 in Entrepreneurship (27th year in the top 10), and No. 9 in Management.
Its once-per-month, in-person Executive MBA with seven global and domestic immersions ranked 14th, its part-time MBA was ranked a school-best No. 6, while its undergraduate business program ranked seventh.
Q&A WITH DEAN LILLIAN MILLS
Mills took over at McCombs at the height of the pandemic disruption – both on business and on business schools. She had a lot to learn about pivoting a major business school of more than 6,500 undergrad, graduate, and executive students to online, and about the changing business landscape McCombs was suddenly preparing them for.
Mills, an award-winning scholar and educator, accounting professor, and former chair of the school’s Department of Accounting, had to be a quick learner.
We recently caught up with her to talk about navigating the post-pandemic education and business landscape, the growing tech and business hub around Austin, Texas, and what it means for McCombs students.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the lessons on leading a business school that you learned in the pandemic.
The pandemic seemed made for innovators. At McCombs, we innovated—and have continued to optimize—academic content delivery, virtual community building, and new ways of communicating. While we offered flexible online and hybrid study during COVID-19, human connection and collaboration is an incredibly important part of our educational value proposition, so we worked quickly to get back in person. Some 70% of our professors opted to teach in-person as soon as it was safe to do so, recognizing how much we need time together on our own back porch. So coming out of the pandemic, we’ve redoubled our commitment to in-person education.
From an employer partner perspective, we saw great upside of remote connectivity. McCombs was able to create greater student access to more companies, funneling a wealth of fresh ideas from New York and California, which – similar to Austin, TX – are breeding grounds for innovation, invention, and commercialization.
We’ve also taken an increasingly holistic approach to student advising these past couple years, which is offered both in-person and virtually.
As a result, we’re educating and graduating students into the workplace that are fluent and comfortable working in different modalities and collaborating across locations, time zones, and cultures.
What are some of the permanent changes you see in the business environment coming out of the pandemic?
One change that we’re hyper-attuned to is movement toward more human-centered businesses. Workers are compelling companies to prioritize personal wellness alongside productivity. Calling for newly flattened org charts and a focus on flexible communities. Advocating for the double meaning of equity in business. Shaping a human-centric workforce isn’t the “softer side” of business – it’s becoming a business imperative that pays strong dividends.
On a related note, we’ve seen renewed emphasis on business culture, community, and connectedness – within the workplace, and in the larger business ecosystem. Without question, Austin, Texas, has been a big winner of the COVID tech migration, and is earning recognition as both a tech hotbed and one of the world’s most entrepreneurial cities. From household names like Dell and Whole Foods, to up-and-comers like DocStation, to tech giants like Google and Apple, and unicorns like Tesla and Bumble, Austin is home to companies that define the intersection of big ideas and bold innovations – together.
And on the note of tech, we’re seeing accelerated change around artificial intelligence. Everyone is talking about ChatGPT, right? And it’s raised some questions (and maybe even apprehensions) around fully automated workforces and technology replacing human jobs. We’ve confronted these questions in accounting, which is my specific subject matter expertise. That’s not to say it’s unique to any individual business function, but we’ll use accounting as a working example. Is AI a threat to the accounting workforce? No! Will it create less demand for accountants? That couldn’t be further from the truth. More rudimentary tasks will become obsolete, and that’s a good thing. Tech-enabled functions will make more room for accountants – and all businesspeople – to focus on higher-powered thinking and critical decision-making.
How is McCombs responding to these changes specifically?
At McCombs, our brand promise is to be “human-centered and future-focused.”
On the human-centered side, even before the pandemic, we’ve long been putting people at the center of a business education and prioritizing a culture of care. We appreciate students as individuals and we foster an appreciation for individual passions here – it’s the Austin way. But above all, we promote a collaborative spirit. And that attitude sticks with our students out in the working world and changes work environments for the better. We can innovate and grow the economy faster as a collaborative endeavor.
On the future-focused side, at McCombs’ doorstep, right now, sits one of the most diverse, creative, and fiercely entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystems in the world. So here at McCombs we are really uniquely positioned to keep the pulse of business trends. And, in fact, McCombs has been a leader in future-focused competencies, integrating more tech and AI into the classroom while prioritizing intentional, in-person learning. We were one of the few institutions to use hologram technology for synchronous lecture delivery during the pandemic.
And while we’re predominantly in person again now, we’ve applied those learnings to create a high-touch online offering for our part-time MS Business Analytics program, which includes a mix of self-paced virtual learning, synchronous weekly meetings, and immersive on campus experiences. (The final deadline for the residential MS in Business Analytics programs is May 15, 2023.)
With Austin growing into a tech hub in its own right, have you seen graduates affected by the tech layoffs or hiring freezes? Or, have you made overtures to recently laid off tech employees for your MBA or graduate programs like we’ve seen at other schools?
Two things that keep our career team highly optimistic for not just our MBA students, but our MS and our undergraduates as well: The Texas economy itself is very robust. We are still adding jobs, and companies are still moving to Texas. While there are some local tech layoffs, we are not experiencing tens of thousands of layoffs here in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Because the economy is so robust, compared to 20 years ago, our students who want to can get jobs in Austin.
Another point, our working professional MBA program in Austin is booming. I know the national trend for full-time MBAs is softening of applications. Applications for our full-time MBA are good to strong, so we’re not fretful about it the way many MBA programs are. But where the applications are exploding is the evening MBA in Austin.
What that tells me is it’s not the laid off people needing an MBA, it’s the people working in Austin at really great jobs who don’t want to take two years away from their careers to get an MBA. They have the flagship University of Texas in their backyard, and they can get an MBA two nights a week for two and a half years and then elevate their opportunity set. That program is doing its strongest ever, and all together in the US News, our rankings bumped up to No. 6 which is the highest it’s been.
How has business education changed since the pandemic, specifically the ways that are more permanent?
I spoke earlier to different modalities of business education. In some spaces we’re seeing new and-improved virtual education offerings; in others, a more concerted effort to bring people and perspectives back together in person. You can teach and ‘do’ business anywhere now, more than ever before. It’s our great privilege, here at McCombs, to live, learn, work, and play in Austin, TX, which many consider the business capital of the future.
In terms of interest and enrollment, it’s clear that young people are hungry for capitalism, innovation, and prosperity. We’re seeing students [and BBA parents] who are increasingly looking to business education to help “future proof” their careers – and not all in the traditional sense. I have my wings over 6,500 students getting degrees here at McCombs, plus another 6,000 students minoring in business. That’s one quarter of the University of Texas at Austin student population coming through our doors – and while it’s a competitive environment, we are committed to opening our doors wider. From mid-career professionals ready to level-up into senior leadership roles, to entrepreneurs and aspiring startup CEOs, to lifelong learners, all are invited to ‘Make It Here’ at McCombs, as we say.
And to come full circle to my earlier point about being human-centered, I think we’ve seen heightened focus on student health and wellness throughout all of higher ed, including within business education. At McCombs, we’ve taken a hard look at how business school environments can unknowingly contribute to social anxiety, for example, in that so much of our messaging celebrates networking and rewards “being in community.” With these insights and more, we expanded the number of mental health professionals at McCombs and launched a Wellness Center in the heart of our community with dedicated resources and programming.
You’ve mentioned business schools need to embrace inclusion, creativity, collaboration, and opportunity creation. Explain what this means.
At McCombs, we believe that a growth mindset is directly supported by an abundance mindset. I talked earlier about our collaborative spirit. We really champion the power of collective energy here, and the idea that a diversified set of people, skills, and perspectives is critical to social and economic improvement. And that’s not just a ‘feel-good’ thing we say; faculty research substantiates the intrinsic business benefits of diversity and inclusion.
This all feeds into innovation and opportunity creation. More trained graduates heading out into a world with more business options and entrepreneurial ventures signals more opportunity all around. McCombs students enter the workforce with the mindset that their ‘win’ does not require someone else to lose, and that we can achieve more together than we could alone. I’m really proud that McCombs alumni are ambassadors for collaboration at scale.
Explain McCombs’ “robust innovation spirit.” What are some specific examples of this innovation that have been developed out of the pandemic?
One specific example of innovation at work during the pandemic can be found within our full time MBA. We created a virtual community in Microsoft Teams with a collaborative calendar. Pre-made Study “Teams” groups for remote collaboration and connection. Disseminated program office communications. Held direct chats and Teams calls with Academic, Career and Financial Aid Advisors. And introduced an ‘MBA Meet-Up Bot’ that randomly paired students and staff once per week for spontaneous connection, fortifying the fabric of our community.
Another example is our use of hologram technology in partnership with Austin, Texas-based Contextual Content Group. We started this with our Executive MBA program, and have since experimented with innovative tech applications for Professor Andrew Brodsky’s negotiation class [which has been optimized to be fully online] as well as our part-time MS in Business
Analytics (offered largely online).
Of course, the rising tech tsunami has brought up important questions and conversations about ethics. McCombs’ Center for Leadership & Ethics has been a tremendous resource and research engine in that regard. And our award-winning Ethics Unwrapped series makes that research super-accessible and digestible.
McCombs recently hosted the 2023 Business Outlook: Focus on the Future of Energy. What trends did you discuss regarding energy, and how is McCombs prepared to meet some of these in its business programs?
Our Business Outlook Series panel, “The Future of Energy”—along with recent conferences with the Kay Bailey Hutchison Energy Center—created opportunities for fresh conversations about the opportunities, challenges, and trends shaping the energy industry.
Texas has been an energy leader for generations, and the University of Texas at Austin has had a front-row seat to each industry shift. That unique vantage point has always positioned us to be on the cutting edge, shaping trends and reimagining what this industry, at its very best, can be. This state made its name as an oil powerhouse, but that’s just part of the story. We’ve pioneered renewable technologies and are currently producing more Kilowatt-hours of wind energy than any other state. This is part of Texas’ energy legacy too. And to use the words of University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell, “We want to be the University of AND, not OR.” We’re committed to exploring any AND all solutions as we try to meet the energy needs of an unknown future.
For McCombs’ part, we have world-renowned faculty teaching at the intersection of data analytics and energy from the undergraduate level through to our Executive Education program for senior leaders. Applying a business lens, we can bring rationality, objectivity, and evidenced based insights to explore complex issues in this space and find a way to balance, for example, energy security AND sustainability.
By encouraging innovation at the intersections of energy, business, law, and policy, we will build up a new generation of leaders who are future-focused and prepared to serve society with energy solutions at the highest level.
We’ve done a fair amount of reporting on the value proposition of the residential two-year MBA, and how some are warning that the degree may be losing its cache – particularly in all but the top programs. How do you access the health of the degree, and what is the value proposition for it at schools like McCombs?
While there is increasing competition for graduate business students (from both within academia and the external job market), there continues to be strong demand for graduates with the combination of technical business training and elite-level management and leadership skills that our MBA offers.
Both data and anecdotes keep me optimistic about the value of the MBA:
One, Poets & Quants ‘own research with Payscale demonstrates that a Top 20 MBA has a lifetime premium of $2.2-$4.5 million. Two, companies continue to come to campus eager to hire McCombs MBA students. We have not heard of any major changes to that interest level. Per the GMAC Recruiter survey, 92% of corporate recruiters plan to hire newly minted MBAs.
Three, our McCombs MBAs regularly tell us in “Would you Recommend to a Friend?” surveys and in their stories that they got even more out of their MBA than they expected when they made the decision to come back to school.
And finally, the “future of work” calls for nimble, human-centered leaders who have strong skills in critical thinking, communication, ethical decision making, interpersonal skills, leadership etc. We know we are developing the future leaders that are needed for the opportunities and challenges ahead. That’s our core value proposition: “human centered, future-focused.”
Is there more talk at McCombs about different delivery formats for MBA programs? Online or hybrid options, for example.
We are continually evaluating delivery formats. I like to use a reinterpretation of tech development’s “Agile methodology” applied to education where we are working iteratively to improve our programs—testing, piloting, and checking in with students and faculty as we go along.
We are moving carefully with respect to evaluating online and hybrid formats because, as I’ve talked about above, we view our in-person culture and networking opportunities as key strengths of our MBA programs. We truly believe the most dynamic leadership learning happens when people from diverse experiences come together in person, in a vibrant campus and city setting.
That said, McCombs is running a new online MSBA. And we’re piloting a few classes in MBA that are fully online and optimized for an online experience, including Professor Andrew Brodsky’s class on “The Art and Science of Negotiation.”
Having select classes online provides additional flexibility and increases reach and access while upholding our commitment to real human connection and experiential learning.
What are some recent innovations at McCombs across all its business programs that you can highlight?
On the MBA side, we have been very active recently with curriculum enhancements, including STEM certification of tracks in our Full-time MBA and revising our Working Professional MBA programs to provide increased flexibility and offer specialized content tailored to those students.
From our undergraduate to our executive level programs, we have also been looking at ways to embrace data analytics across different disciplines. And we’ve leaned into real potential to own the business of sports here at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. Of note, in Fall 2021 we launched a one-of-its-kind Business of Sports Institute: a sports education and research venture in partnership with Accenture that leverages the advantages of a top business school at a major research institution with an elite sports program. And we rolled out a Sports Business Minor for our BBA students.
Anything else you’d like to discuss.
At The University of Texas at Austin and at McCombs, we say “What Starts Here Changes the World.” And that’s more than a tagline. It’s the driving intent of our many fantastic feats and groundbreaking accomplishments across the Forty Acres, for the benefit of people around the globe.
That idea guided us through the pandemic as we dug deeper, moved out of our comfort zones, and channeled new levels of resilience. And it continues to push us forward. We are – and I am – working harder than ever before. But we are energized in our shared mission.
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