Legendary Florida A&M Business Dean Set to Retire
Dr. Sybil Mobley is recognized by many as a trailblazer in business education
By Ben Hammer
After spending the last four decades at the helm of Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry (SBI), and creating a new standard for business programs around the country, Dr. Sybil Mobley says it’s time for her to go.
Dean Mobley transformed the school of business from a program others looked at with disdain to a school now recognized nationally for its unorthodox approach and excellence. She did things her way, creating a five-year MBA program for top high school graduates who bypassed many introductory college courses by acing college entrance exams and opting for an accelerated, one-of-a-kind graduate degree.
Despite not having been awarded accreditation for the school in her most recent attempt last year, Mobley says she has no regrets as she prepares to retire this month. FAMU could have made accommodations to its program to receive accreditation, she says, but to do so would have required eliminating the school’s unique curriculum that makes it so competitive.
To her, stepping aside is another way to put into practice her philosophy that business schools must perpetually change what they teach in order to prepare their students best for the real world. At this point, a new leader can help the school forge ahead in maintaining its strong offerings, she says.
“At one time, you would have a success and you would say, ‘now we have to get someone else to do the same thing,’ ” Mobley says. “But now things are changing so much that someone else has got to come in and change it … Someone else will come in and do it better.”
Arriving at FAMU in 1963 with an MBA from the Wharton School and a doctorate in accounting from the University of Illinois, Mobley quickly broke new ground in business education. When she became the school’s dean, she transformed the school’s undergraduate business course into a five-year MBA program that no other institution offered.
“Her biggest achievement is that … she in fact has created a program that is bigger than she,” says Art Collins, a Washington-based lobbyist and 1982 graduate of SBI who served as FAMU’s chairman of the board of trustees until this past January. “Notwithstanding the fact that she leaves some big shoes to fill, she has created an institutionalized program that will survive for years to come.”
FAMU’s program is different, Mobley says, because of its worldwide outlook — the school requires students to take an internship overseas in addition to internships for academic credit with a domestic company.
“What makes ours especially hot is that we don’t let them go without the language, the economy, the culture, the history…” she says. “We say the globe is the unit of analysis for anything. So if we talk in finance, you’ve got to know the global treatment for everything.”
Top officials at other HBCUs recognize Mobley as a trailblazer in business education.
“Dr. Mobley has played a significant leading role in the lifting of the prestige and impact of business education at HBCUs and for African Americans,” says Dr. Lucy Reuben, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at North Carolina Central University. “She’s had a very profound and indisputable impact on focusing the nation’s attention to the impact that management education has had at HBCUs.”
While other business schools focus on teaching a set of facts that are currently relevant, Mobley says, FAMU teaches competencies and analytical skills. The different approach has paid off, with graduates working in 60 different countries, and Fortune 500 company executives and recruiters visiting the campus to meet with students and faculty.
“We convinced them that we were preparing these kids to be the cream of the crop,” says Mobley, who brings top executives and middle-level management to campus weekly to meet with the students and faculty.
Executives have visited the school from pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Janssen Pharmaceutica Products, as well as accounting firm Ernst & Young, financial giant Morgan Stanley and beer-maker Anheuser-Busch. The executives meet with students in several different forums and discuss the curriculum and business world with faculty members during their visits.
At the outset, observers made fun of her innovative program, Mobley says.
“We made it up, and people laughed at it and now people are eating it up,” she says. “Majoring in content used to be satisfactory, but now it’s not.”
Now, even though FAMU’s business school appears in national rankings, some still find it controversial that it has never received accreditation.
“There have been some unpleasant comments about accreditation,” Mobley says. “Our program is unlike any other program, because we made it up. Accreditation has a fixed formula. And it comes down to what do you prefer. This program has worked so well for us … and so we elected not to change.”
A successful entrepreneur for 13 years, Collins says accreditation recognizes standardization and conformity, rather than a school’s true performance.
“What is the real meaning of the success of an institution?” he asks. “Many would argue it is what happens to the graduates of that institution.” He added that SBI has no shortage of applicants for admission.
Mobley says she is looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and doing some writing, and she says it’s time for her to move on.
“I have overspent anybody’s time that ought to be at a school,” she says.
She predicts that most of what has been in the realm of colleges until now will be taught at the community college and high school level. Television will also be an important medium for learning, Mobley says.
“The world moves on, and that’s why we thought we had to have an approach that changes with time, both the methodology and the content,” she says.
Collins says the school’s continued success will depend on the strength of its next leader’s vision.
“This modern day FAMU got a national if not an international reputation through the work of the dean,” he says. “Whoever fills those shoes would have to come in with a vision to be as successful as she is.”
Mobley has been a member of the board of directors at Hershey Foods, Anheuser-Busch and Sears, and is a consultant to the United States Agency for International Development for multiple African countries. Born in 1925, Mobley is a member of the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
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