In 2008, during the depths of the great recession, Longwood hired a new dean of the College of Business and Economics, Paul Barrett, who had a broad career track. A successful entrepreneur with a thriving consulting business, Barrett had earned his Ph.D. in middle age, in pursuit of a lifelong dream of becoming a college professor.
For the last eight years, Barrett has overseen a dramatic expansion of the facilities and investment in undergraduate and faculty research activities. Enrollment has swelled, and the online MBA program is now ranked in the top 100 in the country, fulfilling a challenge set forth when Barrett arrived. A thriving cyber security center—the first of its kind in Virginia—and a top-ranked real estate faculty have put the college on firm footing, poised to be recognized as one of the best in the nation.
This week, Barrett announced he is stepping down from his post as dean to fulfill his dream: He’ll begin life as a Longwood professor in spring 2017.
Barrett sat down with Longwood staff to talk about his tenure.
First things first: why transition now?
Last summer, my son-in-law suffered a heat stroke in the middle of a triathlon. All of his organs failed, and it was only because he was a tremendous athlete with a world-class medical team by his side that he survived. It was a really frightening time for the whole family. That served as a sort of reminder to me that tomorrow is not guaranteed. I thought about why I had gone back to college in my 50s and earned a Ph.D., and it’s because I wanted to teach. The business college is in really good shape, so I decided I’m not waiting any longer.
Looking back to when you first arrived, what were the immediate opportunities for growth you identified?
I arrived in 2008 and the college was on shaky footing. There were fewer than 10 students in the MBA program and enrollment had been falling for five straight years at both the undergraduate and graduate level, so there was a lot of opportunity for growth. We built a new model, and in those first 18 months, had a lot of conversations about what we wanted to be. What does a really effective teacher-researcher look like? What would make for a better experience for students? We defined those broad goals and figured out ways to make them happen.
It sounds like you’re describing a culture change.
That’s exactly what it was. We had this great model for the kind of professor we were looking for: smarter, more aggressive, great in the classroom but also solid researchers. We made a few changes and started sending our faculty members out to conferences to learn and network and start looking for people who fit this model. I call it pre-interviewing, and we are now identifying potential new faculty members years in advance. That’s how it’s done in the private sector, but it had never been done here. So eight years later we’ve built a faculty that is accomplished, focused on research and invested in collaborating with students. There’s an energy that exists now that makes Hiner Hall an exciting place to be.
What were your expectations when you arrived at Longwood?
When I first got the job, I knew nothing about what a dean did, having never worked in a university and never taught. When I was offered the job, I started calling deans at other business schools—Larry Pulley at William & Mary and Nancy Bagranoff who is now at the University of Richmond—and asked for their help and advice, which they gave freely.
What’s interesting is that in one of my first conversations with these deans, I asked how often all the deans of the business schools met together, and they each said said they had never done it. That is in opposition to one of the guiding principles of my life: rising tides lift all ships. Regarding business schools, if William & Mary gets stronger, Longwood gets stronger. So now all the business school deans meet one to two times a year to share and collaborate and it’s proven valuable to everyone.
One of the centerpiece programs within the college is the Center for Cyber Security. How did that idea develop?
The first two businesses I was involved in had to do with early computers and software development, and I made some contacts within the government and intelligence communities. I really cut my teeth in the early days of information systems. So I saw what was coming as everything has transitioned online, and thought Longwood could grab a beachhead, which we did. Now we’re the only four-year college in Virginia designated as a National Center of Digital Forensics Excellence by the Department of Defense and we’re a leader in the field.
Again, we’ve collaborated with other schools—sharing our curriculum and experiences developing the cyber security center—to make everyone better. The fact is there’s a need for more talent in the field than one university can produce. So we shared our curriculum with George Mason and are working to share knowledge and capabilities with Virginia Tech and James Madison on similar projects. We are seen in the Commonwealth of Virginia as a real leader on this front.
An increased focus on undergraduate research is one of the hallmarks of your tenure. Why is that an important cog in the development of a student?
Well, I just call it thinking. Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast; you can have all the right ideas and people, but if your organization’s culture isn’t strong, it won’t work. So what is a positive culture? It’s the values that allow people to create, innovate and try something new. Here, we had to build that into the culture—we had to allow people to be thinkers. So we started with the faculty, encouraging research activities, and then extended that to the students. We’ve done a lot of investment in our facilities, establishing the tools to connect to Wall Street and to develop logistics curricula. So students who come through the business school enter the workforce as thinkers, able to be creative and take risks. And that’s a very valuable trait in any organization.
The College of Business and Economics has taken Longwood’s mission to create citizen leaders to heart, making a major investment in local schools to help establish leadership training. Why is that important to you?
I was part of a team of CPAs that provided information to Congress in 2002 on ethics and values in the wake of the Arthur Andersen and Enron scandals. I had a personal interest in what I call leadership values, and I think that we’ve kind of lost the timeless principles that have guided families and businesses for centuries. I came to Longwood at the low point of the great recession, which again was propelled by a breakdown in ethics.
When I got here, we spent a year and a half talking about values, and the faculty voted in the seven values of the college that still exist. Once we established those values, we wanted a system to put them into place and really create a culture of leadership. After a good deal of vetting, we settled on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which lined up with and operationalized our core values.
But I had a thought, which was if we’re first reaching people when they’re freshmen in college at age 18, we may be too late. So we worked with the Franklin Covey organization to develop a new model for leadership development. They already had a 7 Habits based process for elementary schools and we suggested they develop a similar process for both middle and high schools. We brought information on this model to our local school system and it spiked their interest. Then the real work began. Franklin Covey worked with the local school system to implement their 7 Habits elementary school process , and then the Franklin Covey/local school system alliance doubled down on it in the middle school. It is likely that the school system will work with Covey to implement the 7 Habits process next year as it becomes available in the high school. And we’ve seen it working: test results on standards testing have gone up and behavioral incident reports have gone down, while both the elementary and middle schools have come off federal watch lists. This progress is the outcome of many important factors with county teachers and staff and administrators dedicated to excellence for student learning. But the sentiment is that the 7 Habits leadership process has played a part in this progress. So the complete model for Farmville is students who get 12 years of leadership and ethics training in K – 12, and then enroll at Longwood where those values continue. That’s starting citizen leadership at the earliest rung and continuing it through the top rung in the ladder of education.
What advice do you give business school students when considering their future?
My advice extends to all students, from art majors to pre-service teachers to business school students: Major in whatever you want, but get a minor in cyber security, because everything has information security attached to it. If you’re going to teach fourth grade, you’d better be talking about passwords. If you’re an artist, you’re probably going to want to sell something you create and protecting that transaction is paramount. Cyber security is truly one of the most important skills of the future, and it will make you an extremely valuable employee no matter what you do.
What advice will you give your successor?
Longwood is one of the top business schools in the world, poised to do greater things in the immediate future, and let me know if I can help.
But I’m not going anywhere. After a sabbatical, I’ll join the faculty and take the helm as Director of the Leadership Institute, and one of my unfinished goals is to have the College of Business and Economics named and financially endowed, so I’ll be working to support the new dean to make that happen. The point is, I’m here to help in any way anyone needs.
Originally from Baltimore, Barrett lives in Farmville with his wife, Diane. A former competitive collegiate swimmer, he can often be found swimming laps at the Farmville YMCA.