By Steve Vivona
Newly appointed Dean of the Peter J. Tobin College of Business, Dr. Richard Highfield, told St. John's Monthly in a recent interview that he never planned on a career in academia. This Stanford University graduate initially worked at universities "on the business side" doing labor-management negotiation, purchasing, and working with the financial aspects of housing and food services, while working toward his MBA in the evenings.
Through those jobs he cultivated an interest in university operations and while working toward his MBA at Santa Clara University he became interested in mathematical modeling and econometrics. After earning his Ph.D. in Econometrics and Economics at the University of Chicago, Dean Highfield was faced with a choice. "I could go to a place where I did nothing but applied research (the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in Washington D.C.) or accept an appointment on the faculty at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. "The advice at the time was that it was easier to go from academics to the Fed than the Fed to academics -- so if I thought I might want to be an academic, I should try that first. I elected to try the academy and I liked it."
He added that once he arrived at Cornell he developed a love for business schools. "At Cornell there was a great balance between economics and other ways of thinking about the world." In the early 90's Dr. Highfield became involved in academic administration as Associate Dean, and in 1999 he left Cornell to become Dean of the University at Albany (SUNY) School of Business, a position that he enjoyed immensely. "I had more business community interaction, more fund raising activity and more thinking about strategy rather than details."
When the deanship at The Peter J. Tobin College became available, Dean Highfield welcomed the new opportunity that came with joining the St. John's family. He knew he would be working with private-sector advisors, alumni and friends of the College who could manifest their cares, concerns and support in a manner that was vastly different from most public institutions.
Perhaps more importantly, Dean Highfield enjoys the idea of working with and for students, many of whom are first generation college students and whose parents are from modest hardworking backgrounds. "It's very satisfying to work with a group of people who want to work hard because it never occurs to them not to."
Dean Highfield stressed that he wants to get to know the Tobin faculty well because "they are the intellectual capital of a University." He added that he plans to meet all faculty and administrators face to face for discussion about the future of the Tobin College. Due to his many other responsibilities, this will take time, but Dean Highfield considers it a priority. These meetings, he said, should give him a feel for the direction that the Tobin College needs to take for the future.
Dean Highfield has always felt strongly about sharing his professional expertise with students. This commitment has manifested itself in such areas as service on the Executive Board of the MBA Enterprise Corps -- a consortium of about 20 well-known graduate schools of business formed to send MBA graduates to Eastern Bloc countries on Peace Corps-like assignments. "Our job was to line up good placements for students in the right environments. They typically worked as middle level managers in locally owned companies, and lived in the same places and earned the same pay as their local counterparts." Through these assignments, students would serve in a variety of ways to help in strengthening the market economies of countries that formerly comprised the Soviet bloc. He also served on the board of Student Agencies, the country's oldest student-run corporation - where undergraduates managed and shared in the profits of a variety of entrepreneurial businesses in Ithaca, NY.
Dean Highfield has always tried to find new and innovative ways to connect with the local business community and create networking opportunities for his students. In this context, he co-hosted, "Business Matters," a weekly television show he created as a distinctive and very business-oriented alternative to the shows on public policy and politics so common in Albany. "I had a terrific time. I had the opportunity to meet more business leaders in the capital region than I would have under any other circumstances, and got to tell some of their stories." In telling those stories he learned many business people were motivated by much more than money. "It was always some other mission that they were on."
Discussing his goals for his new position, Dean Highfield said he wanted The Tobin College of Business to be the place where people found the answers they were looking for. "When an issue comes up in the insurance industry or in risk management, for example, you think that someone at St. John's must know," and "the way you do that is by having vibrant programs that are really relevant to the industry."
He added, "We have to be listening all the time to what's going on in business-related fields so that the preparation we give is what people want us to give. If you make the potential employers happy you're going to make the students happy." Yet he stressed that it is also imperative to continue to teach the fundamentals that make up a strong MBA program.
"We need to do that in Queens, Staten Island and Rome, but the big challenge will be to make St. John's Tobin College a force to be reckoned with in Manhattan. You don't get any more metropolitan, or closer to the world center of business, than that." Building the kind of reputation Dean Highfield seeks doesn't happen overnight, but he is confident that St. John's has the ability to reach this goal. He added that St. John's was a great fit for him because "it's an institution with the right kind of mission and the kind of students I really love."