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New Questrom Dean: Building a Brand

Susan Fournier applies marketing expertise to managing business school

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Susan Fournier, a professor at BU for 13 years, became dean of the Questrom School of Business on August 27, 2018. The school’s first woman dean, Fournier is a leading international expert on brand marketing and is credited with pioneering the subfield that explores the relationships consumers form with brands, products, and organizations. She was formerly a marketing professor and Questrom Professor in Management, an endowed chair. Her latest research examines the challenges of celebrity branding based on her 20-year analysis of Martha Stewart’s brand.

Fournier succeeds Kenneth W. Freeman, Questrom’s dean since 2010. During his tenure, undergraduate student enrollment increased by nearly 30 percent and BU trustee Allen Questrom (Questrom’64, Hon.’15) and Kelli Questrom (Hon.’15) and their foundation made the $50 million gift that led to the renaming of the school in 2015. The school also transformed its programs to emphasize ethics and global citizenship and to better meet changing student and employer needs.

“I intend to further establish our reputation as a preeminent academic institution with a reputation for research that matters, teaching that inspires, and faculty and staff who care,” says Fournier. “We need strong partnerships with industry and organizations that can provide data and questions for research that impact practices, policy, and society, and also collaborations in the development of courses and projects that provide hands-on, experiential learning. I have a deep appreciation for the stakeholder perspective from having worked and lived on the other side.”

Fournier says she also wants to increase Questrom’s focus on new, targeted master’s degree programs in healthcare, social impact, and digital specialties, while expanding interdisciplinary engagements between departments and with other schools at BU.

“Questrom has already begun breaking down barriers between traditional academic disciplines that operate in outmoded silos in favor of interdisciplinary programming,” she says. “Eliminating those boundaries in hiring, curriculum, research, and other interfaces is the future of business education and perhaps education in general.”

According to Robert A. Brown, BU president, Fournier will lead the school at an important point in its history. “Susan assumes the role of the dean of the Questrom School of Business during an exciting time for the school, for business education, and the University,” says Brown. “I look forward to working with her to continue the journey of increasing the quality and impact of the school’s education and research programs.”

BU Today spoke with Fournier, Allen Questrom professor and dean, about her leadership style, the future of the MBA, and her plans for getting alums more involved with the school.

Questrom School of Business Dean speaks with students in a hallway.

BU Today: What lessons from your research will you apply in your new role?

Fournier: Building a strong brand is the goal of any organization. Strong brands require awareness, differentiation, commitment, and loyalty. Forging relationships across stakeholders is at the heart of any strong brand. It’s the same thing when you are running a business school.

I have in-depth knowledge of the psychology and sociology of relationships, how they develop, how they fall apart, what kind of flavors they come in. The whole point of my research is to understand the value people get out of forging brand relationships, what role the brand, product, or organization has for people in their lives, and how building those relationships creates value for the firm. It’s not about selling a product; it’s about understanding the foundation of those products in people’s lives and introducing solutions that help them.

My knowledge of branding will also inform initiatives dedicated to increasing the equity of the Questrom brand. We will leverage our faculty, our programs, our institutes, our research, and our alumni and stakeholders to increase awareness and build resonance with our brand.

What are some of the trends in graduate business education that you’re watching and how is Questrom responding to them?

The market for graduate business degrees is complex. There are areas for growth and trends that do cause concern. On a national scale, companies are no longer subsidizing tuition 100 percent, or, in some cases, not at all. Many organizations have taken training in-house and the big consulting firms have entered the game. Online programming has increased dramatically in quantity and quality, allowing companies to keep their employees on-site. International colleges and university competitors are getting really strong and upping their academic game. Politics around H-1B visas are affecting enrollments.

Susan Fournier poses for a studio portrait.

All of this puts pressure on US enrollments in the graduate business program space. An MBA is still the only degree that gives you a broad perspective on business problems and immerses you in all the disciplines of business. Leaders need breadth. While applications for the full-time MBA continue their downward trend across the nation, we have been fortunate enough to grow applications to select MBA programs, such as the part-time MBA and executive MBA. This is a tremendous credit to the quality of our faculty and our programs.

What’s really grown is the specialty market. When any market grows, it’s eventually going to fragment. We’ve been focusing on three areas over any others: health, digital technology—which is anything related to data-driven online business platforms like Uber—and social impact/sustainability.

We selected these sector-based growth areas because they are critical to the economy, embedded in the Boston ecosystem, and areas where we have comparative faculty advantage. We have master’s programs tied to these sectors, and we are exploring more program growth tied to segments in these spaces.

For Questrom, it’s about being aware. There are market opportunities and unserved or underserved segments. We have the experience and the discipline to find these opportunities and offer solutions.

What’s the significance of being the first academic appointed as dean in 40 years?

Through my status as a practicing academic with over 25 years of experience, I have deep empathy for, and understanding of, the research and teaching functions that are fundamental to an academic research institution such as ours—in other words, I get it. With all of the foundations we’ve been laying in terms of faculty hires, institutes, and program infrastructures, Questrom is at a stage of its development where an academic perspective can yield substantial value. Different times call for different leaders, and at this moment in time, the opinion of the trustees and University leadership is that Questrom can benefit significantly from a dean with academic experience. I’m honored to be the one to take on this new role.

How would you describe your leadership style?

My leadership style is threefold: relational, collaborative, and respectful. The first is self-explanatory: I study relationships, my area is brand relationships, and I brought relationship thinking to the world of branding.

I’ve also worked as senior associate dean for faculty and research, and that is a role that’s not always popular and requires you to make tough decisions. You have to build relationships so people can trust you.

Secondly, I’m collaborative; I seek to empower whoever works with me. I’m not going to pretend to be the one person in the room who knows it all. I know it takes a village to get something done.

Lastly, my leadership style is founded on the principle of respect. At the foundation of everything I do is the drive to create a healthy Questrom culture where we all work together in a culture of mutual respect.

What roles would you like alums to play in Questrom?

Alumni are critical stakeholders in our academic and research mission. They graduate and go out and change the world. They become our brand ambassadors. They can come back into the classroom, enhance our learning experiences, and provide connections for internships, mentorships, or job placements. They provide data for projects in hands-on classes.

Alums can also play a role as advisors as we develop new programs. They’re living today’s business issues and can offer a broader perspective. You can bring them to the classroom, on panels, and as mentors. Many are also accomplished businesspeople who can bring their wisdom, knowledge, and decision-making skills to bear on Questrom’s problems. I look forward to these engagements.

Will you bring a different perspective as Questrom’s first female dean?

I’m ecstatic, humbled, and honored to be Questrom’s first female dean. I’ve been lucky in that gender hasn’t been a defining element for me personally or for my leadership style, but I recognize that for a lot of women that’s not the case, especially in the current #MeToo era. For them, and for all women in business, I’m happy that I’m in this role and ready to do everything I can to help on that front. But I will say one thing: I look forward to a time when gender is not a question we need to probe. I’d rather be sought out as an outstanding dean, not a woman dean.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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