Incoming Tepper School of Business Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou photographed on Friday, July 10, 2020, in the Tepper building.
After reviewing more than 400 candidates in a nearly year-long search, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business found its new leader in Canada. The school announced today (July 13) that Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, recently renewed for a second five-year term at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, will become the school’s tenth dean on Oct. 15.
Bajeux-Besnainou, 56, succeeds Robert Dammon, 63, one of the most successful deans in the school’s 71-year history. Among other things, Dammon helped to fund and build a new $201 million state-of-the-art building that has transformed the school and put it at the center of the university. He launched three new master’s programs, including a unique and highly ranked hybrid online MBA option as well as two specialty master’s program in business analytics and product management and reinforced the school’s positioning in management science. After a nine-year run as dean, Dammon will return to his role as a full-time Tepper faculty member in financial economics.
To earn the job, Bajeux-Besnainou went through a battery of more than 50 interviews in a search assisted by headhunters Heidrick & Struggles that led to the assessment of hundreds of both academic and industry candidates. She is the second woman to become dean at Carnegie Mellon’s business school since economist Elizabeth Bailey who led the business school from 1983 to 1990. Her appointment may signal a new trend in deanships, the recruitment of already experienced deans. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for example, hired the dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, while the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California has brought aboard the Wharton dean.
‘COMING TO THE COUNTRY OF OPPORTUNITY WAS OUR DREAM’
“Our search committee immediately recognized Isabelle’s collaborative nature and deep commitment to interdisciplinary education,” said Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Tepper who served as co-chair of a 17-member search committee. “She will galvanize our leadership position in business, technology and analytics while expanding experiential learning programs and entrepreneurship opportunities for students. We are extremely pleased to welcome her to Carnegie Mellon.”
For the French-born Bajeux-Besnainou, a mathematic-trained finance professor, the appointment fulfills an American Dream that began in the early 1990s when she and her husband, Jacques, a nuclear engineer, moved to the U.S. in pursuit of a life and careers with greater impact. “When we met in high school, we said we are going to have two kids, name them David and Sarah, and we are going to move to the U.S. in that order,” she explains in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Coming to the country of opportunity was our dream. We thought the U.S. would be an amazing country to have an amazing impact on the world. We were very lucky to be able to live up to that dream. This was our dream, and we accomplished that dream. I’m American, and I still believe that this is the country where things will happen in the future. And we now have three, children, David, Sarah, and Judith.”
She and her husband rented a compact SUV last week in Montreal for the nine-hour drive to Pittsburgh for preparations for today’s announcement, househunting, and a chance to visit their first grandchild in Washington, D.C. “It was a lovely drive but crossing the border was quite surreal,” she says. “There were only trucks at the border so we had lots of people taking care of us. I will be able to go back but have To stay in my house for two weeks before seeing anybody.”
MATH CAME NATURALLY TO HER: ‘I GUESS IT WAS THE EASY PATH’
When she returns to finish up her work at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Bajeux-Besnainou can take great pride in her accomplishments at the school over the past five years. She led the launch of several specialty master’s programs at McGill, including programs in retailing, finance and analytics, the launch of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management, a faculty recruitment initiative that resulted in the hiring of 49 full-time professors, and the $16 million renovations of a new home for McGill’s MBA and specialized masters programs.
Her second deanship at Tepper, whose full-time MBA program is ranked 17th best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants, caps an academic journey that began when she was an intellectually precocious young girl in a Northern suburb of Paris. While her parents were not academics, her father was a physical therapist while her mother ran a small clothing store, they strongly valued education. She worked weekends selling underwear and ties at her mom’s store but was encouraged to pursue her studies in a discipline that attracted few women.
“I always liked math,” Bajeux-Besnainou says. “It came naturally to me so I guess it was the easy path. It is also a prestigious path in France where there is a strong mathematical culture. “One of the good things in France is that you can go to very good schools even when you are not from an advantaged background. I am a product of public schools.” Her competency in math helped to win her acceptance in 1984 to Ecole Normale Supérieure, one of the most selective and prestigious graduate schools in Paris, France. Often the only woman in class, she would move on immediately after her undergraduate studies to earn a doctorate in math and its application to the world of finance at Université Paris Dauphine just five years later in 1989 at the age of 24. Her dissertation put her math skills to test in a paper on portfolio management performance.
‘I BECAME MORE INTERESTED IN WHAT WE ACADEMICS CALL THE DARK SIDE’
A self-described introvert, she spent four years as an assistant professor of finance at ESSEC Business School in Paris until 1993 when she moved to the U.S. to realize her dream. Bajeux-Besnainou took up residence in Lincoln Park, N.J., and began a teaching job at the University of Montreal while searching for a position in the U.S. She would find that job at George Washington University which she joined in 1994 as the only woman in the finance department. For the first 17 years at GW, she followed the typical route of an academic, churning out research papers published in academic journals and becoming a fully tenured professor of finance at the school. Then in 2011, she became chair of the finance department. A year later, she took over as associate dean for undergraduate programs, leading 110 full-time faculty members and some 1,600 students.
“Like a lot of academics,” she adds, “I was trying to evolve as I became more interested in what we academics call the dark side. But as I started doing it, I realized I really enjoyed it. So that was the start of a second type of career in roles that have a direct and different kind of impact on faculty, staff development, and students’ educational experiences.”
That pivot to the administrative side, assisted by her reading of Jim Collins’ Good To Great, led to her recruitment as the first woman to become dean of Desautels in September of 2015. It was a major career transition, moving out of the U.S. to lead a school with more than 3,000 students, 100 full-time professors, and a dozen academic programs. In addition to adding the three specialty master’s programs at McGill, she also created a certificate in health care management for resident physicians. Her strategic plan was built around four pillars: research excellence, a culture that is centered on students, community impact, and financial sustainability.
The new Tepper Quad at Carnegie Mellon
AN EMAIL FROM HEIDRICK & STRUGGLES BEGAN A RECRUITMENT PROCESS THAT INCLUDED MORE THAN 50 INTERVIEWS
When asked what she is most proud of accomplishing in that job, she immediately cites the 100% donor-funded renovation of the university book store building for the business school’s graduate programs. “We were able to finish it on time and below budget for $16 million,” she says. “The vision is to have the first floor of the building on the main street of Montreal as a place with lots of activities with companies. One is with startups and this is our entrepreneurship center and on the other side a retail lab that belongs to a new School of Retail Management that we founded two years ago. That will open soon and it will be an open lab which essentially means it will be a store where researchers are going to work on real subjects, people who are coming to shop in the space.”
Her interest in the Tepper job occurred after receiving an email from Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm hired shortly after Damon announced in late August that he would be stepping down at the end of the academic year. She had just been renewed for a second five-year term. “I pretty much always say no to all the emails I receive,” she says. “In this case, I had a discussion with the headhunter and I thought why not? It looks to be the perfect fit for what I believe in and what my skills are. I began looking into it and the more I discovered, the more I believed this would be a very good fit.”
She has long been interested in and passionate about interdisciplinary learning, in 2013 launching a Bachelor of Science in Finance at GW in which students are required to do a second major outside the business school. Tepper’s focus on working with other disciplines outside the business school, a goal reinforced by the opening of the new Tepper Quad in 2018, had great appeal to her.
‘THERE WAS MORE OF A CONTINUOUS REASSURING THAT THIS WAS A GOOD FIT’
Thus began a months-long process of interviews with decision-makers and stakeholders. “It was kind of a continuum,” she says of the process. “I interviewed with more than 50 people. Interviews go both ways, always. So when you exchange with people, it’s really about finding out more about the culture of the place. There wasn’t one time when it completely clicked. It was more of a continuous reassuring that this was a good fit. And the more I met with people, the more I thought this was what a business school in today’s world should be.
“I feel very strongly that the Tepper School has the best positioning among business schools,” says Bajeux-Besnainou. “It is all about skills-based learning. It’s about big data and being at the center of a university that has the DNA of being highly cooperative with strong schools of computer science and performing arts. Everybody is talking at every university about how important it is to be interdisciplinary. It is not something that I will have to work really hard to make happen because it is part of the culture here and that is something that is incredibly important.”
Bajeux-Besnainou believes strongly that interdisciplinary work is the only path toward effective problem-solving. “I don’t think you can be a silo,” she says. “If you look at the finance industry right now, they are saying more and more that they want to hire people with big data skills because that is what they need. For the students, this is incredibly important. When you think about the retail industry today, there is no way you can think about retail without artificial intelligence skills, without technology in general or without a deep understanding of sustainability issues. At McGill’s retail lab, we have two co-directors, one is a professor in operations management and the other is a faculty member in our engineering department. This is a very strong signal to say that retail innovations will come from the tech side.”
‘COMING FROM THE OUTSIDE…I AM VERY OPEN TO EVERYTHING’
That interdisciplinary approach stands in contrast to the more typical European model of a business school, she believes. “In Europe, the models are very different. The business schools are by themselves. And more and more of them are trying to work with other engineering schools which are, by the way, also by themselves. They are trying to build these bridges, but it is a lot more difficult for them. At Carnegie Mellon, this culture is really embedded within the university.”
She intends to begin her deanship with a listening tour. “Coming from the outside, I feel it is very important to really understand the place,” says Bajeux-Besnainou. “It will be the second time that I come from outside. I see lots of advantages in doing that because I am very open to everything. I will need to take a closer look and I have lots of things to learn. I haven’t even met with most people here, only the search committee. This is really something important for me in terms of how to manage a place. I want to find out what people here are passionate about and what it is that they would like to accomplish. If that fits what I think is the right direction, then I will work very hard to make that happen. This is how I did it at McGill. It builds on the passion of the people internally.”
The announcement included the customary quotes from university officials welcoming the new dean. “Dr. Bajeux-Besnainou is the ideal candidate to lead the Tepper School’s renowned interdisciplinary programming, including initiatives that unite researchers, students, and industry leaders to advance work that shapes business and society,” said Carnegie Mellon Provost James H. Garrett, Jr., in a statement. “She will work closely with our students, faculty, and staff both within Tepper and across campus to create even more collaborative academic and research opportunities and bolster the Tepper School’s efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Garrett publicly thanked Dammon for his contributions and the search committee for its work. “We are grateful to Dean Dammon for his tremendous leadership, which helped establish the Tepper School as one of the nation’s premier business schools,” added Garrett. “Bob led the effort to open the David A. Tepper Quadrangle while strengthening and expanding CMU’s academic and research programs. I also want to thank the dean search committee — and especially Sridhar (Tayur) and Anita for serving as co-chairs — for their outstanding efforts throughout the process. The committee’s exceptional guidance and vision during the last year have allowed us to welcome the ideal leader to the Tepper School.”
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