Amy Kristof-Brown calls herself an “accidental dean.”
After growing up in the Baltimore area, she joined University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business in 1997 as an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Organizations. She thought she’d spend a couple of years before returning to the East Coast, but fell in love with the Big 10 university in the midwest. She worked her way up through the ranks, taking on more and more committee and leadership roles, and was named senior associate dean at Tippie in 2017.
She took over as interim dean in March 2020 in a particularly transformational period for the business college. It was just before the big wave of COVID disruptions and as the college was phasing out its residential, two-year program. She was appointed as the full-time dean in December of that year, beating out two highly-qualified external candidates.
“I never set out to be a dean. Being an academic is a really great job; You get to research the things you want to study, teach courses that are interesting to teach, and meet great students. I am what they would call more of an accidental dean, where you start doing work on committees, are apparently pretty good at it, and then they ask you to keep doing more,” Kristof-Brown tells Poets&Quants.
Kristof-Brown found that she really liked her role as senior associate dean and being very invested in the Tippie community. When she was asked to be interim dean, she told herself it would only be for a few months.
“It turns out, I really liked the job because you get to really oversee the strategic direction and you spend a lot of time talking with people outside of the college who care about the college being successful as much as you do. That’s really fulfilling,” she says.
In the two years after shuttering its full-time MBA, Tippie launched an online MBA which went from about 40 students to more than 400 in just a few semesters, and it launched two master’s programs in finance and business analytics which are now available full-time on its campus in Iowa City or part-time in an online format. It has also merged its online MBA with its part-time program, allowing students to take a mix of online and in-person courses in a way that works best with their lives and schedules.
Recently, two and a half years into her deanship, we caught up with Kristof-Brown to check in on Tippie’s direction and its bold moves to the online space – not just in the graduate programs but in executive programs as well and the possibilities she sees in the undergraduate program. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What were some of your big goals as dean, and what progress have you made on them?
We had a really terrific dean in Sarah Gardial, and she and I were the ones who made the decision to close the full-time MBA program. We actually made that decision my first week on the job as a senior associate dean. She, I think, had put us on a really good direction, and so I was not campaigning for the deanship to do something entirely different.
The thing that we had a really hard time doing was really creating good partnerships with corporations and others in the state, so that was what I wanted to do more fully. We’ve got great faculty, really strong programs, and I think we’ve been very market driven by our graduate programs in particular. I wanted to spend the time opening the door for business and for partners in the state and region, making sure we are giving them what they want.
I created an Office of Strategic Partnerships, so we had someone dedicated to reaching out to companies and finding what it is that they needed. I guess, not surprisingly, what we discovered was that Des Moines is a huge insurance center, and they didn’t feel that we were really meeting all of their needs. Within the first year and a half, we initiated a Risk Management and Insurance major for undergrads, and it’s now ready to launch in fall of this year.
We’ve just announced a partnership with the Global Insurance Accelerator, which is a startup accelerator for insurtech companies, where we’ll be bringing together our Vaughan Institute of Risk Management and Insurance and our John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center to help them with curriculum, projects, and internships for our students. There’s just some really great things happening in that space.
Speaking of closing the full-time MBA, what is the feeling around the Tippie community since then? Any regrets?
That is probably the single biggest question I get asked when I go to AACSB meetings, and we are extremely happy with what’s happened since that time. We announced the closure in fall of 2017, and so our last class graduated in spring of 2019. During 2018, we initiated the creation of an online MBA program as well as the introduction of a Master’s of Science in Finance and a Masters of Science in Business Analytics full-time program. That was where we pivoted.
We made the change to the program, but we didn’t see any reduction in staff or faculty. We launched the online MBA in fall of ‘19, and that was extraordinarily good timing. With COVID hitting in spring 2020, we had already prepared to take a degree into an online format.
We saw just tremendous growth in that program very, very quickly. Our goal had been to intake 40 students in the fall, 40 students in January, and 40 students again in the summer, and then to keep that cycle. We actually admitted 40 In the fall of 2019, 39 students in January of 2020, 200 in summer of 2020. The fact that we were ready to be in that space, we saw just an immediate boost in our enrollments. We’re now up over 700 students in our graduate and professional programs.
When you say it’s the question you get asked often, do you think it’s because other schools are considering a similar move? Do you think it’s a trend that is gaining steam, or has it leveled off in your opinion?
I think that the market has evolved and continues to evolve. I think there is certainly a growth now because of COVID, working professionals are looking for more flexible ways to get their education. I think there will always be a market for those full-time programs, but what was happening at the time was the top 10 programs were just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You had a market that was shrinking, and your top players were getting bigger, and so there became very little room for the rest of us.
I think there’s still a lot of colleges that are in that space and are having to fight very, very hard to get full-time students because, frankly, online programs make it much easier to get your degree without having to leave your job for two years.
When online MBAs were just emerging on the market, there was a bit of a stigma attached to the degree. Do you think that is still the case? What do Tippie employers say about the online programs? Do you perceive there is still that stigma in the job market?
I’ve never had anyone raise the question about whether it’s a different kind of program. We’ve always served working professionals across the state. We did it face-to-face, now we do it across the country, and we do face-to-face and online.
From the very beginning, we didn’t price it differently. We didn’t teach different content. We didn’t use different faculty. We kept everything as comparable as we possibly could in the online program as we did face-to-face, and so I’ve never had an employer question the quality of it.
Does the online program attract a different kind of student in demographic terms?
The age and the number of years of work experience includes the range of who applied for the full-time program, but it has broadened because we get people who are actually at more advanced executive stages.
This is a really interesting evolution for us, because we’re going to soon add an executive certificate to that online program for people who have more than 10 years of work experience. We’re seeing a much broader array of students signing up for that online program than we ever expected. Students who would have normally come to an executive program are now enrolling online because of the flexibility and also the more reasonable cost. We have a program that’s priced in the low $30K while executive programs are closer to $75K to over $100K.
Do you see other opportunities in the online space, either in the undergrad or other graduate degrees?
We are now offering an online format for our Masters of Science in Business Analytics for working professionals. Certainly for schools like ours that are not in major metropolitan centers, being able to get access to people across a wider geographic area is really important. We’re a state school, we serve people in the state, and we serve a lot more of them now in the online programs that we have than we ever could have before. We serve people across the country as well. So I would say the Master in Science programs all have a lot of potential in that online space for working professionals, where that flexibility with work, their family, their volunteer activities, their church activities and all of those other things serves them really well.
What we learned from COVID is that our undergraduates really, really value an on campus experience. We have a handful of online classes that we offer, but they’re all offered to our on-campus students. That’s where we’ve decided to focus.
I think there are certainly other universities that are saying an online undergraduate degree is where they want to go, and I think that could be right for many of those programs. But for us, at a Big 10 college campus where a lot of people want to be, the on-campus students are the population of undergraduates that we’re choosing to serve.
So we have an interesting split now where all of our undergraduate classes are really happening face-to-face, and most of our graduate level classes are happening online.
More broadly, where do you see the future of business education moving?
Flexibility of offerings is probably the key, and flexibility comes in format. That is online in many cases, or it’s some combination of online and in-person.
But I think it’s also flexible in terms of the degrees. We’re seeing a lot more certificates, micro credentials, things that are stackable into degrees. People want their education in smaller bite-sized chunks, and it’s very consistent with what we see across many other industries. Particularly at the graduate level, people want the ability to try some things out, to build some smaller certificates, upskill in areas that are going to be immediately applicable to their jobs, and then build that into larger degrees.
At the undergraduate level, I think that trend will also kind of trickle down. We haven’t seen it as much in that space other than programs allowing sort of customized majors, double majors, and certificates on top of majors, on top of minors. But right now at the undergraduate level, that bachelor’s degree is still a pretty important criteria. Over time, with the economy, will that become less of an important criteria? It probably will. We’ll see businesses that are starting to say smaller amounts of formalized education might be fine, and then they’ll add on to that themselves. We see that with certifications coming from companies.
As higher education professionals, we’re looking at how we get people what they want, when they want it, in a format that’s flexible, and that meets the needs of the employers.
Are you doing stackable degrees?
We do it in our graduate programs. Students can join the online program, start with a certificate, and then they can add another certificate to the degree. We haven’t moved it as much yet into the undergraduate space, but I can see that coming.
What are some of the goals for your next tenure?
We want to continue to be open to business and make sure that we’re being good partners with them. I think it’s been very interesting over the last couple of years to realize how important we are to businesses. And more broadly, they are so interested in getting access to the students, and they want to have an influence over what the students are learning. So keeping that very open line of communication between companies and faculty and curriculum committees and making sure that we’re really getting students ready to step into that space really matters.
Certainly, AI is going to be a huge area that we step into. Not only do people need to understand it, they need to know how to work with it and how to manage people that are using it. We have terrific people in machine learning and optimization, the technology that underlies AI, but we also need to educate an entire generation of business students about how to use it ethically and strategically.
A good example of that: The University of Iowa calls itself the writing university, the only public university in the top 20 that is ranked for writing across the disciplines. That includes us. We have a wonderful communication center that works with students across every major on communication skills, and we focus on writing, oral communication and data visualization. So, when ChatGPT emerged back in the fall, our faculty immediately worked it into the curriculum. Faculty members are working with ChatGPT writing prompts, and teaching people how to use it. We’re not dodging it. We’re trying to incorporate, How are you going to use this in your job? I think that’s a really different way of stepping into that space than what I’ve seen from some other universities.
I understand that Tippie has also doubled down on student mental health. Describe your efforts in that space?
This is an area that we’ve certainly taken very seriously. We have a new university president, Barbara Wilson, and she’s emphasized student wellness across the board, but particularly mental health.
We have an embedded counselor in the College of Business who is affiliated with our University Counseling Services. They reside here in our building, and they spend 90% of their time working with our students and developing programming for our students. That’s been terrific.
She’s also worked with many of our student organizations to create programming for their membership.
The next step is having her work with our professional prep faculty, which are faculty who work on, what does it mean to have a career in your major, looking for internships, and looking for jobs? We’re working mental health initiatives into each of those courses,because those are some of the highest stress points that students have. We’ll make sure that we get to every student, because one of the concerns with just going to student organizations is then you only reach the students who are joiners.
We’ve also launched social media campaigns starting back in 2020 where we have students indicating how they are doing, rating their mental health from 0 to 100. When we had students that were telling us they’re at a zero or a 10%, we reached out to say here are some resources. We are actively using our social media as a way to reach our students, and I just see that continuing to build steam.
We did a campaign in the fall called “How I Stay Grounded,” featuring students, faculty, me, anyone we could find, talking about what you do to stay balanced. It ran for a month, got lots of good traffic, and it just won an award for Mental Health Champions on campus, and it was a student-run campaign, which was really fun.
I think it’s really important that we’re using language that is not always “mental health,” “in distress,” but talking about coping skills that you need. I consider it a huge part of business education because we’re sending students off to employers, and they bring anxiety and depression with them along with functional skills. If we can also equip them with skills for managing the stressors, anxiety, all of those things that we know that they have, they’ll be better employees, and they will certainly be more healthy at work. T
This has been such an interesting time to be a leader in higher education and in business. COVID certainly introduced an acceleration of trends that I think were already there, but it really did help us to be more attentive to what our students are looking for. We talked to them a lot, and we’re listening to them. That’s a really important pattern.
One of the things that we always try to do in our online programs is to recognize that students could get content in a lot of different ways, so we want to provide content in a way that feels authentic to us as a college. We’re a tight community and that feeling of collaborativeness and community colors everything that we do. We have an online program, but we always have synchronous classes. You can always see the faces of the people you’re with. We offer destination courses where you can come to Iowa City and meet with faculty for one or two of the sessions. We also have people that fly to Iowa City for the first time for graduation. So we’re really trying, even if the program is being delivered in an online way, to build the community and give them that feeling of being a part of the Tippie community. That’s been an interesting and unique challenge, but it’s really important to our faculty and our staff that we do that.
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