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Q&A with Homer Erekson

O. Homer Erekson ’74 returned to TCU in 2008 to become dean of the Neeley School of Business.

Homer Erekson, TCU band alumni

Homer Erekson played trombone in the TCU Marching Band during his undergraduate days. (photo by Amy Peterson.)

Q&A with Homer Erekson

O. Homer Erekson ’74 returned to TCU in 2008 to become dean of the Neeley School of Business.

How has the business school changed since you became dean?

We’ve had a significant growth in the number of students, but we haven’t lost that personal touch. We have hired fantastic faculty. Whether these are brand-new assistant professors, or whether they’re people in endowed chairs and professorships, we have attracted clearly world-class faculty who are leaders in their fields.

 

Was returning to TCU a career goal?

I wouldn’t say a goal, but obviously it was an exciting opportunity. Before I was dean, I was on the National Alumni Board for a couple of years. It was interesting to watch TCU develop from a mainly teaching institution with a bit of research to now a strong national university where you see first-class scholars who still love to teach.

In business education, we aren’t trying to solve the problems of business, but the problems of the world.

 

Your academic background is in economics and political science. What is the advantage of marrying the more theoretical liberal arts with the practical arena of business?

In business education, we aren’t trying to solve the problems of business, but the problems of the world. As you look at any business problem, including how consumers make decisions, there are obviously economic dimensions, but there are also psychological dimensions. Both economics and political science provided this broad perspective, and strategy is about pulling things together. The liberal arts background is key to that.

I like to say that the quality of an undergraduate business degree program can only be as strong as the first two years of liberal arts. Some people talk about the soft skills — and I don’t like that term, I think they’re professional skills — but whether it’s writing, communication skills or understanding cultures, a strong liberal arts education helps to provide that kind of background.

 

Business has been at the forefront of technological evolution, in part due to its culture of changing to meet demand. Does the business school have a strategy for teaching adaptation?

We have a promise, and it’s simple, but I think it’s profound: We’re committed to unleashing human potential with leadership at the core and innovation in our spirit.

When you think about innovation, partly it’s about creating new products and improving processes in existing businesses, but it’s also about being agile. The world changes so fast, and we need to help our students have practice in confronting situations and let them practice being agile.

We also prepare principled leaders. So students are not only graduating with a business degree, but they’re graduating with a strong values set. We try to provide opportunities for them to confront ethical dilemmas in business and not give them an answer, but rather have them struggle with the kind of ethical conundrums that are in the world.

You’re in the fundraising process to expand the business school’s facilities. Tell us what you have in mind for the new space.

We’ve grown over the last decade from serving about 1,700 students to 3,300 students. We now serve one out of every three students at TCU, so we need bigger facilities because we’re bursting at the seams.

But it’s well beyond that. Education has just changed. There are less lecture-style classes; there is a lot more interactivity in classrooms. We need classrooms that encourage that. We also need spaces outside the classroom, what I like to call collision spaces, where students can collide with each other, or business leaders who are on campus. Or faculty. So much of education is about sharing ideas. And obviously if you’re not together, it’s harder to share.

 

Bloomberg Businessweek designated Neeley as the No. 24 undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Economist placed the Executive MBA program is the fifth-best in the U.S. Will you share a few secrets of building the school’s reputation?

Well, first, you have to have a quality product. If the emperor has no clothes, it doesn’t work out. And we do pay attention to them, but rankings are always imperfect. Some are strictly reputation based. There are others that do more objective criteria — how our students are placed, the quality of students in the program and the quality of faculty research. But we’re not driven by rankings. We hope that our programs drive our ability to be ranked.

 

The business school is launching a health care MBA program as TCU and the University of North Texas Health Science Center collaborate on a new M.D. school in Fort Worth. How will business skills prepare people to improve and transform the health care industry?

Our job is to solve not just the problems of business but also the problems of the world, and health care is one of the big problems. Health care is complex. It’s a big part of our gross domestic product. So the more that we can understand efficiencies within the health care system, ways that we can manage costs better, that will improve quality of life for all of us.

The world changes so fast, and we need to help our students have practice in confronting situations and let them practice being agile.

You played trombone in the TCU marching band. What did being a part of Jim “Prof” Jacobsen’s innovative “Show Window” mean to you?

It was an important bonding experience. We traveled a lot; we would go to most — if not all — of the Southwest Conference games. Some of my very best friends, to this day, were in the band but weren’t music majors. I met my best friend, a PhD chemist, in band. Another college roommate is a vice president at a bank. Another is an emergency-room physician in Los Angeles. We had a bond in loving music, which is a language of possibility.

 

How did being in the band prepare you for a career in higher education?

In an organization like a band or a football team, typically the participants have a similar passion for whatever they’re doing as the coach or as the band director does. Sometimes it’s a challenge in education because the students in a particular class may not, at first, have the same passion that the professor has for the discipline. To make that real, you find ways to connect students to the discipline, not through textbook examples, but through real-life examples.

 

From endowed chairs to the Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Competition, where students propose business plans with a potential social impact, to the BNSF Neeley Leadership Program, the business school has leveraged successful partnerships with alumni, businesses and the community. What does this say about the school and its students?

When you put a team on the field, the scoreboard reveals something about how they play. When our students graduate, as they become leaders within the community and well beyond the [Dallas-Fort Worth] area, that’s reputation building.

The part of the Values and Ventures competition I love is that a quarter of the companies proposed are actually operating now. We’re not just playing at business. We’re creating business. We’re creating knowledge, and that knowledge is to really make a difference in the world.

we’re not driven by rankings. We hope that our programs drive our ability to be ranked.

Business school students and faculty participate in service-oriented work across the globe, especially in developing countries: Beyond these experiences, how can business schools prepare global citizens?

We clearly are a connected world now, and I think most of our students will work overseas at some point. How do we build connections? To do that, we have to not only experience different cultures, we have to learn from other cultures.

 

Talk of the “one percent” is all over society of late. This resurgence of populism sometimes casts successful business executives as villains. Is this fair, or is this a huge misperception?

Just like in any area, there are people who aren’t principled leaders, who are tempted by, not so much profit or money, but by ego or by wanting to go beyond what’s reasonable.

But business is a force for good. I believe in markets. They don’t always work perfectly. But in addition to providing jobs and benefits, business leaders more often than not have strong values and care about their responsibility to society.

— Caroline Collier ’98