Dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University since August, Dr. David Thomas is a rarity — he is an African-American and he leads a top business school. He has taught at Harvard Business School and, before that, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has co-written two books, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America and Leading For Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County.
DI: How did your previous career prepare you to be dean?
DT: I’ve spent my career looking at such issues as how companies develop, in particular, executives of color, how organizations change, what difference the leadership makes. These things are essentially what I am about today in this role, dean of a school that is very diverse and in the process of moving to the next level, which means change. I sit in my seat as an African-American executive.
I’ve had a successful career prior to coming here, which gives me credibility as an academic. I’ve won the highest awards in the Academy of Management. I’ve also been a department head and senior associate dean at Harvard.
DI: How does your position as an African-American dean of Georgetown’s business school fit into the history of that deanship and also nationally?
DT: If you look at the top 25 business schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report or Businessweek, there are only two African-American deans, myself and Peter Henry, who’s at NYU. I think Peter was the first, and I’m the second — at least that I’m aware of. In that sense, it is significant.
I’m the first African-American dean at McDonough. The other piece that makes it significant is students of color, in particular, African-Americans, tell me it makes a difference to them to see someone who looks like them in this kind of leadership.
DI: Can you summarize the recent changes in the school’s MBA curriculum and how they will better prepare graduates for the job market?
The changes really center around, once I came, my asking a task force of faculty, staff and students to look at our MBA program, with the purpose in mind to develop principled leaders with a global mindset prepared to serve both business and society.
Some aspects have to do with more integrated teaching. Business wants people who can solve problems, and problems aren’t solved in intellectual silos. Greater rigor. A lot of MBA programs have moved toward making their core courses shorter. We actually lengthened our coursework. If these things really are core, then they should have relatively more time. Also, greater emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills.
We’ve had a global experience component to our curriculum, where students go out of the country. We’ve looked into the time we devote to that experience. Starting next year, they’ll come back and do another six weeks that will allow them to share the experiences [with each other].
DI: How has the school’s career services office adapted to the tight job market?
We decided if our students were going to have an edge, it would depend upon the preparation they showed, in terms of depth of knowledge about a particular industry. Instead of having career management generalists, we have career industry specialists.
We’ve become much more aggressive and focused about opening up international opportunities. We had an international peer conference this year. We had about 30 global companies participate, with students coming to learn about opportunities outside the U.S. We plan to make it an annual event.
The other thing is to make our students focused on a wider variety of opportunities, in social enterprise organizations, nonprofits, NGOs. We’ve been active in those markets.
DI: What are your plans for further diversifying the pool of MBA students at the business school?
One thing we know we have to do to become more competitive for underrepresented minorities is strengthen our scholarship funds and endowments. When we look at why we lose underrepresented minorities, disproportionately it’s because our financial aid packages have not been competitive with our counterparts.
McDonough is often very democratic. We would be more likely to take the approach of spreading the money around evenly to a lot of people, as opposed to really differentiating the students at the top of our desirable list and allocating more funds to those. We’re looking at that.
We’re also looking at whether we can develop better relationships and connections with historically Black colleges and colleges that serve a high proportion of Latinos.