LINCOLN — Donde Ashmos Plowman and her husband, Dennis Duchon, shut off their computers and took a real vacation before moving here in 2010 to become dean and a professor, respectively, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration.
Back home after a week in the Caribbean, Plowman switched on her email and found a deluge of messages from friends and colleagues, giving her some surprising but challenging news: "You're the dean of a Big Ten business school!"
While the couple were electronically absent, UNL jumped from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. The move was prompted by athletics, Plowman said, but "very quickly it became academic." The change ramped up her excitement at becoming UNL's ninth business dean — and added the goal of raising UNL's business school up to Big Ten standards.
That's a tall order.
As a group, the Big Ten houses the nation's top business schools, homes to some of the most respected and prolific professors and the source of many of the nation's top business leaders. In national rankings, the other Big Ten business schools fall between the University of Michigan, No. 4, and the University of Iowa, No. 34.
Nebraska? UNL's school ranks No. 67, thumped for a high student-teacher ratio, less faculty research and an undersized endowment — at $28 million, it's less than one-tenth the size of the University of Michigan's.
"It's a huge challenge for our school to try to earn our way into the Big Ten," Plowman said recently in her office on UNL's downtown campus, neatly decorated with family photos and a wall full of books. It's a second-floor corner room of the college's building, which dates to 1919 and was expanded and renovated in the early 1990s.
If the college reaches that goal, she said, "The best and the brightest in the state won't have to leave to study business. We will be turning out students that our employers are dying to hire. And if they do leave, they will want to come back. That will be good for the whole state."
The Big Ten challenge is "a good impetus for us to reflect on ourselves as a college and who we want to be," she said. "We're compelled to raise our sights. It's great for the state of Nebraska. I think the state deserves a highly ranked business school."
For the state's businesses, a top-flight business college could achieve the same results that the university's Peter Kiewit Institute is achieving in the high-tech sector, said Terry McMullen, president of the logistics warehouse company Cargo Zone of Omaha and past president of the Nebraska Diplomats. The diplomats are volunteers who help recruit businesses with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
"To be respected in those upper tiers like some of the business schools in the Big Ten would draw talent like PKI has done in Omaha," McMullen said. If UNL becomes a premier business school, he said, "it's going to have an impact on us for decades after. Everything builds up around that. UNL is such a great leader for our communities."
Since arriving in Lincoln, Plowman and the UNL faculty are moving toward more cooperation with the university system's other business schools in Omaha and Kearney, opening new connections with Omaha's business community, recruiting more faculty and students, embracing a drive for $60 million in donor support for teaching and research and discussing — quietly — a new building for the college.
She wants to add 13 faculty members this year and eventually build the 79-member faculty to 120 people — an expensive proposition when the average U.S. business professor makes $139,000 a year and new business-related Ph.D.s average $118,000.
"I think she's under what I could say is attack mode to get somewhere," said Howard Hawks, an NU regent and chairman of Omaha's Tenaska Corp. "She's taken the business college apart, in a sense, like you would if you were analyzing a business and seeing how it needs to change in light of her strategy and her vision."
Hawks and some others hosted a pair of luncheons with Plowman and some Omaha business leaders, "helping her get plugged into the Omaha business community. I think she's been well-received."
That's an important new connection for UNL if Plowman expects to find the private money for professorships, added research and a new building. About one-fourth of the college's alumni live or work in the Omaha area, and most of the state's potential large donors have Omaha ties.
"If you go to the other Big Ten colleges, you'll see that quite a few of them have new buildings," said Kirk Kellner of Omaha, regional president for Wells Fargo Bank and president of the college's volunteer advisory board. "If you don't have aspirational goals, you'll never get there."
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said business, engineering and agriculture are priorities for the university to become competitive with other Big Ten land-grant universities. The goal, he said, is to become a Big Ten university "in fact as well as one in title."
But Plowman was hired to improve the school even without the Big Ten challenges, he said.
"We were looking for a person who had similar ambitions to where we wanted to go and had the capacity and talent to help us get there," he said. "I was impressed with Donde's energy and her knowledge of what would be required to bring the business school to a different level."
Perlman said a new business school building is "a high priority for me. It's critical for our enrollment goals. It's critical for being able to leverage the business school for economic development. We can't get much bigger and not a whole lot better without new facilities."
The economic impact of UNL's new Innovation Campus depends on involvement by top-level business students and faculty, he said. "Having an innovative idea isn't enough. You've got to figure out how to bring it to market."
UNL management professor Fred Luthans, the senior business faculty member at UNL with 45 years on the job, said Plowman is "committed to bringing Omaha and Lincoln together. She just came in with fresh ideas and a lot of enthusiasm, and I think she can take us there.
"We have a good faculty, and in certain areas we're very well-thought-of nationally and internationally. We've always had a good reputation. Now we can aspire to have a great reputation."
Plowman is working with NU's other business deans, Louis Pol of Omaha and Tim Burkink of Kearney. She called Pol soon after arriving, and he gave her a tour of UNO's new business college, which opened this summer. After NU President J.B. Milliken told deans from the campuses to meet and discuss possible cost-cutting in 2010, the three business deans have met several more times to discuss a broader range of ideas.
The new Omaha business college, a $34 million, donor-funded building, is half the size of the one UNL is considering. That could put the possible UNL facility in the $70 million range.
"There's certainly an implied element of competition between us, but our focus now is largely on how we can cooperate and advance some programs that we both have," Pol said. "I know that she has a big job on her hands in entering the Big Ten. Certainly we will cheer her on to success."
Burkink said he supports Plowman's efforts at UNL, too. "As the flagship campus, as they improve, that's going to put pressure on us, in a good way, to improve," he said.
Plowman said UNL can move up to at least the top 40 among U.S. business schools by focusing on its strengths and following a strategic plan developed over the past year by the college's faculty.
For example, UNL's actuary science program is one of 12 "centers of excellence" recognized by the Society of Actuaries. Its part-time MBA program is ranked fourth in the nation. Its finance program ranks third in the Big Ten.
Already the cachet of being part of the Big Ten is attracting students and faculty members, Plowman said.
Scott Seavey figured he would turn his Ph.D. in accounting from the University of Missouri into a faculty position at a Big Ten business school, but until 2010 UNL wasn't on his radar.
"Once I found out that they were moving to the Big Ten, that raised my interest," said Seavey, who was from Madison, Wis., and familiar with the University of Wisconsin's business college. Even so, his professors at Missouri had some doubts about whether UNL was, well, good enough.
"After the interview process, when I came back and discussed options with my mentor and other faculty members at Missouri, it changed their minds a bit and made them realize that UNL really does want to be a part of the Big Ten and is really doing what it needs to do to increase its research and teaching to that level," he said.
"It started out with a little bit of concern and ended up with full support. It's very exciting to be a new faculty member who, instead of being a cog in a big wheel, can be a part of that building process."
Plowman said her efforts to add faculty will benefit from the extra $50 per credit hour tuition that the school now charges, adding about $3,000 to the cost of a business degree. The college's student-faculty ratio is about 40-to-1, while the average in the Big Ten is 29-to-1.
At the same time, she wants the school to attract more out-of-state students, including many from Big Ten states who are being denied admission to the business colleges of the Big Ten schools in their home states. That's one potential niche for UNL, she said.
The universitywide "Campaign for Nebraska" fundraising drive initially included $24 million for faculty and research support at the UNL business school. Plowman ramped that goal up to $40 million, and so far commitments have reached $15 million, with an additional $5 million or so expected in the next few months. Plowman also drew up $20 million more in proposed support, a "wish list" for future campaigns.
At the bottom, the college's fundraising brochure says, "New home for CBA: Approximately 240,000 square feet — cost to be determined."
Plowman has talked with some people who might become major donors for a new building, but nothing's definite yet.
One potential money-raising opportunity: Unlike Iowa's Tippie College of Business or Michigan's Ross School of Business, UNL's school doesn't have a name — yet.
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