Taking Care of Business
Commitment to faculty, students and fund raising brings Florida State dean early legacy of success
By Pearl Stewart
One morning about three years ago, Dr. Melvin Stith brushed past a student who seemed to need assistance in his outer office. When the dean of the Florida State University College of Business stopped to ask the young man if he could help him, the student asked who he was. “I’m the dean,” Stith replied. “Yeah, right,” the undergraduate business student shot back.
“I had to convince that young man that I really was the dean,” Stith recalls, half-laughing. The incident evokes humor, but also sadness because just a few years ago an African American student in his own university could not believe that a Black man could have this position.
The student’s skepticism was reasonable. Barely a handful of African
Americans are business school deans at predominantly White universities with enrollments exceeding 36,000. Stith, who holds an MBA and Ph.D. in management from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s from Norfolk State University, has held that position for 12 years, during which he has garnered the admiration of his colleagues around the country.
Moreover, FSU’s College of Business has been a leader in producing minority graduates from its doctoral program. Seven of the 18 doctoral students entering the business college this fall are minorities, and the university placed fourth last year in the Black Issues’ Top 100 for awarding the doctorate in business to African Americans.
While business school deans tend to spend less than five years in their positions before moving on, Stith’s longevity as dean makes him even more unique. He has boosted the College of Business endowment seven-
fold and has built and intensified partnerships with an impressive list of the nation’s corporate heavyweights. That reputation combined with the undergraduate business program’s consistent ranking in the Top 50 by U.S. News and World Report have netted Stith an early legacy: success.
He attributes his achievements largely to the college’s ever-growing list of financial supporters, a stable management team, superior student services, advanced technology, and “faculty, faculty and faculty.”
He has made the acquisition and retention of a quality faculty a priority.
“I didn’t want us to be a triple-A farm team for the Big 10 schools,” Stith remarks, explaining that his goal has been to make the newly minted Ph.D. faculty FSU is known for hiring want to remain at the institution. “We had to stop the blood drain, so I had to make sure we had more faculty supplements and endowments.”
To accomplish that, he has grown the endowment from $8 million 12 years ago to its present $55 million, of which he says $37 million is available cash. As a result, one-third of his faculty are on supplemented incomes and the College of Business has nine endowed chairs.
The other key ingredients — administration, student services and technology — also are linked to financial support. According to Stith, prospective students are lured by the institution’s reputation, scholarships and the availability of the best technology. “The real recruiting,” Stith notes, “is done by our students. Our students send us good students, so we have worked hard to create the best environment possible for them.”
And, he adds, “one of the first drivers of that environment is technology.” At FSU’s College of Business, 12,000 square feet are devoted to technology — in an all-wireless building. Stith says another important component of student services is significant scholarships and extensive retention efforts at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Making Students a Priority
For Renee Pratt, who is beginning the doctoral program this fall, FSU emerged as her first choice from eight institutions she was considering. She made her decision after meeting Stith in Chicago at an annual conference sponsored by the Ph.D. Project.
“He sat down and spoke with me right there,” Pratt recalls. “He answered all my questions, and he was very intuitive — what really struck me was that he knew exactly where his alumni were and what they were doing.”
Pratt, who has a master’s degree in management information systems from Case Western Reserve University and a bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Florida, plans to research how human behavior relates to information systems. After she spoke with Stith in Chicago, Pratt used her research skills to gain additional data on the FSU business college and its department of information and management services. She contacted five alumni and current students and spoke with faculty members before making her decision. No one said anything negative. Both minorities and non-minorities gave glowing reports about the program.
Angela Hall, ABD (all but dissertation) in management, says FSU has fulfilled her expectations, which were high when she entered the doctoral program in 2000. She mentions the accessibility of faculty members as one of the high points of the doctoral program. “If I send my dissertation chair an e-mail question, I get a response in minutes. He is very available.”
Her experiences are unlike those of her friends at other institutions. “They say it’s very difficult to get a response and that their appointments are often rescheduled. That’s definitely not the case at FSU,” Hall says.
Finance instructor Gary W. Smith agrees. “At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the faculty and the dean are very student-oriented.” Smith, who received his MBA from FSU and worked as an economist for the State of Florida before joining the faculty three years ago, believes the intense student focus is working. “The overall quality of students is definitely improving,” Smith says.
The college’s avowed interest in diversity and the fact that FSU has a Black dean were compelling factors for Hall. “I hadn’t had a Black or Hispanic person teach me since I left grammar school in Chicago,” says Hall, who earned her bachelor’s at New York University and her law degree at Florida State. “As a member of the undergraduate faculty, I’ve had many undergraduate students tell me I’m the first minority person to teach them in the university.”
According to Hall, Stith has managed to attract students, faculty and an administrative staff who are comfortable with his goal of reaching out to minorities without feeling that others will be slighted. “FSU emphasizes fit,” Hall explains. “They bring in faculty and doctoral candidates who fit with the culture.”
Sharing a Vision
Like Renee Pratt, Horace Melton was impressed by Stith’s presentation in Chicago. “I caught his vision,” says Melton, who also is entering the Ph.D. marketing program this fall. Melton has had a 25-year career in financial services and plans to conduct research in entrepreneurship and economic empowerment among African Americans.
Others have “caught” Stith’s vision along the way as well. Dr. George Stevens, dean of the Kent State University School of Business, says he is one of Stith’s biggest fans.
“Mel is real special, very unassuming, but one of the hardest-working and sharpest folks around. He’s forward-looking, and he has been fortunate to have the support of others who are open-minded and forward-looking.
“Stith’s success is no minor feat,” Stevens contends. “There are very, very, very few African American deans (at predominantly White universities) because the positions are too powerful and involve too much money.” He notes that when Stith became dean at FSU, “it was just us out there.” Stevens was acting dean at the University of Central Florida at the time.
Currently, another African American is in their tiny fraternity. Dr. Sidney Harris is dean of the Georgia State University School of Business.
Despite the accolades, Stith isn’t taking his job for granted. When he was first appointed, the faculty wasn’t solidly behind him. They went to the foundation and asked to see the accounts, Stith recalls.
“So, early in the game, I began to work very hard to include the faculty.” Recently, Stith has established a commission to determine, ‘What do we want to be in the future?’ And though he set it up, “the commission is not driven by me; it’s a faculty-driven process,” he says.
The ability to raise the millions of dollars needed to keep the college competitive has been affected by the bumpy economy. In the 2002 fiscal year, the FSU College of Business raised $4.3 million, down from $4.7 in the previous fiscal year, but Stith is quick to point out that in the same year, direct cash contributions, largely from alumni donating less than $10,000 apiece, rose nearly 30 percent to a total of $446,000.
Sure, Stith acknowledges, gifts are smaller now, but while donors have lost money, they are not broke. Overall, the university raised $107.2 million in fiscal 2002, topping $100 million for the first time. So, Stith surmises, “There’s still money out there.”
The fund raising, which wears down many top administrators, is Stith’s favorite part of the job — even in strained economic times. It’s that attitude that enables Stith to keep the dollars flowing in and to set the lofty goal of raising $79.5 million in his current “Campaign for Business.”
Although raising money doesn’t worry Stith, the thorny issue of affirmative action in light of the University of Michigan case does. As a pioneer himself and one of the staunchest promoters of diversity in higher education, Stith admits he is very concerned about the potential of that case — that people who didn’t want minorities there in the first place will now have a crutch. But regardless of the decision in the Michigan case, Stith says his efforts will continue. “We have come too far to abdicate to a court decision. It will be just another environmental constraint — there’s always something. We’ll have to find a way to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
Despite his ardent support for affirmative action, Stith is quick to point out that he has no problem with standardized testing as a part of the admissions process.
“When students say they don’t test well, I tell them anybody can test well if they make it a priority in their lives. Sometimes they have to go back and pick up skills. Making sure all students are adequately prepared when they enroll increases the likelihood of retention, a critical issue for minority students.”
Stith places the retention rate above 90 percent in the graduate programs. “I can think of only about four students who have dropped out.” He doesn’t provide figures for undergraduate retention, but acknowledges that especially for African American males it is an issue that we’re addressing with early intervention programs.
While Stith is content with his progress, he isn’t satisfied. His academic goals include reducing enrollment from the current 6,200 to 5,800 and moving up in the U.S. News rankings to the Top 20. The college recently raised the GPA requirement for undergraduate majors to 2.9 beginning in 2004, from the current 2.75.
As he begins his 13th year as dean, Stith is broadening his vision as he seeks to expand the college’s physical facility. The $79.5 million capital quest set for December 2005 will go toward construction of a 40,000-square foot addition, student scholarships, additional named professorships and chairs, and “dean’s legacy endowments,” which are discretionary accounts.
Stith insists his formula is simple: “Work hard, have fun and don’t be afraid to ask for money.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com