Meet the new dean

Robert Sumichrast in the Pamplin atrium
Dean Robert Sumichrast was struck by how much physical change had occured on campus — and how little of it had taken place in Pamplin Hall.

“I was quite impressed with his maturity, given his relatively young age. He is very articulate, handles himself well, and seems to be a highly motivated young man.”

“I feel he is an excellent match for our faculty. I believe he will make a strong researcher. He also seems to communicate well and appears to be a nice guy. I think we should hire him.”

“Considering his teaching/research background and our departmental needs, Mr. Sumichrast seems to be the right faculty candidate for us to hire.”

Pamplin roots

Robert Sumichrast made such a favorable impression when he first interviewed for a job at Virginia Tech, on Dec. 6, 1983, that department head Bernard (Chuck) Taylor sought approval the next day from Pamplin dean Richard E. Sorensen to hire the 25-year-old as an assistant professor in the management science department.

The department has since changed its name to business information technology, and Sumichrast is now the college’s new dean (his interview for this job took place 29 years to the day after his first interview).

But Taylor still heads the department and still has Sumichrast’s original faculty file, from which he retrieved the above sample of faculty comments.

“We received approval from the provost to make Bob an offer on December 8,” Taylor recalls. “By December 12, he had accepted and started with us winter quarter, 1984. Things don’t happen this quickly in the university any more!”

In April 1984, Sumichrast received a letter about his first raise, which was $1,000, Taylor adds.

Looking back through his file, Taylor says he is struck by the number of letters mentioning Sumichrast’s extensive service to the college and university.

“Bob was one of those faculty who was never a problem,” Taylor says. “He was a department head’s dream — someone who was quiet, serious, confident, and a hard working researcher and teacher, and who did anything and everything he was asked to.

“I also remember he was quick to smile and make people feel at ease around him. He never displayed any trace of an ego; he was unassuming, the kind of faculty member and colleague department heads only hope for.”

Torrid pace of change

When Robert Sumichrast returned to Virginia Tech to interview for the Pamplin dean’s position in December 2012 after a decade-long absence, he was struck by how much physical change had occurred on campus — and how little of it had taken place in Pamplin Hall.

It was evident to him then that Pamplin needed more resources to be, he says, a “21st century business school.” A cultural shift, he soon realized, was also in order.

Since taking the helm in July 2013, Sumichrast has embarked on a torrid pace of change.

“I like a fast pace,” he says. But his moves also reflect his desire to make the most of the momentum he currently has, including the keen interest and enthusiastic response he has received from Pamplin faculty and staff, students, and alumni.

“In formal meetings and informal chats, I have gotten great ideas on how to move forward. You can’t apply every good idea, of course, but people will stop giving you their ideas if they don’t see any action.”

A distinctive mission

At Pamplin for almost 20 years before leaving in 2003 to lead Louisiana State University’s E.J. Ourso College of Business and later the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, Sumichrast says among the things he learned on the job at LSU and UGA is “the need to develop a mission for your business school that is distinctive and that defines a space where you can be one of the very best.”

It is imperative, he says, “to understand the environment and make plans that fit and that take advantage of your institution’s strengths.” It is also essential, he adds, “not to delay when you need to make and implement a difficult decision.”

Thus, his first steps included suspending admissions to the full-time MBA — to focus resources on part-time MBA formats and the highly ranked master of information technology — and investigating the market for an executive doctorate program.

“I felt that Pamplin needed to become more focused,” Sumichrast says. “The college has a wide range of programs. Some were very high quality and in great demand. Others were costly but did not fit our strengths or have strong reputations.

“We have made changes so that we can invest in those programs that can become among the best in the country while eliminating or suspending those that currently did not have that potential.”

The college has established two new centers — the Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — to support research and teaching related to “big data” and entrepreneurship, while shuttering two inactive centers.

Students studying in the Pamplin Atrium
Dean Sumichrast brought new furniture and power
outlets into the Pamplin atrium to foster student learning
and interactions with faculty.

Intent on improving the student experience, Sumichrast launched “Open Mic” forums to brief students on college developments and answer their questions; a new speaker series to bring recent alumni to campus to share their professional experiences with smaller groups of students; and a remodeling of the Pamplin atrium, with new furniture and power outlets to make it more student friendly and enhance faculty-student interactions.

He also significantly redrew the college’s organization chart, realigning a host of reporting relationships to streamline and create synergies in administrative operations, and initiated a branding campaign, to bolster the college’s image and identity through new publications, displays, and marketing materials.

Cultural transformation

Pragmatic measures aside, the dean also saw a need for the inspirational: he has challenged college stakeholders to undertake a cultural transformation, with calls to “expect more” and “build community.”

“Expecting more,” he says, is about “raising aspirations and expectations — of the college and ourselves, whether we’re faculty, staff, students, or alumni.”

Sumichrast is focusing on three strategic goals: increasing the impact and reputation of Pamplin faculty and doctoral student research in the academic, business, and Virginia Tech communities; improving the quality and reputation of graduate education while expanding graduate programs; and improving undergraduate education, experiences, and job placement.

Faculty and staff are key to these goals, says Sumichrast, who has made it a top priority to get the resources needed for them to be more effective in all aspects of their jobs — from teaching, mentoring, and research to student advising and co-curricular activity support.

While raising the bar for research and teaching, Sumichrast is also enhancing the rewards for faculty who are most successful. He has made changes related to research grants and publication, course requirements, and teaching loads and evaluations in an effort “to clarify our expectations of faculty and better align the incentives with our goals.”

Building community

As for building community, this means “developing an inclusive community, team, or network; increasing collaboration among departments and other university units; and promoting service learning and community engagement.”

Early activities included an Election Day chili cook-off and a holiday cookie exchange. Both events raised funds for the state’s employee charitable giving program and were organized by a new event planning group of faculty and staff volunteers, who also organized a reconceived and well attended college holiday party in December.

Sumichrast’s management style, which he once described as more “managing partner” than “CEO,” reflects his belief in a collaborative approach to decision making.

“I don’t believe a dean can be successful in the long term by imposing his or her will on the faculty. If the faculty does not believe in the direction of the college, they won’t change. On most campuses, deans change much more frequently than do faculty.

“Beyond that, I am smart enough to know that I don’t have all the answers. I am surrounded by really intelligent, hardworking people. It only makes sense to try to tap into that resource by coming up with a shared vision for Pamplin.”

This year's agenda

Looking at the year ahead, Sumichrast would like to start a young alumni board, similar to the one he initiated at UGA. “It is a great way to engage recent alumni, who can relate to current students more closely, as they have a different perspective of work and life than alumni who are very successful but more senior in their careers.”

He would also like to make headway on a new building for Pamplin. “We developed architectural and financial plans to replace the facilities of the business schools at LSU and UGA that took advantage of a public-private partnership to get the job done.

“LSU opened its facility shortly after I left the school, and UGA has just started construction. Pamplin must do something similar if it is to compete with the best business schools in the 21st century.” (See sidebar.)

Getting the financial resources needed to carry out his agenda, he says, will be his toughest challenge in these times of limited state funding.

New energy

Sumichrast, who completed his undergraduate degree at Purdue and earned a doctorate at Clemson, has also spent his teaching and administrative career at a succession of land-grant universities.

“I am proud to be part of a system that helps our citizens become more productive,” he says. “We face many formidable challenges as a society, and land-grant universities and business education can contribute — not only by raising living standards and promoting economic development but by helping graduates become better citizens and living more productive lives.”

Sumichrast is the “perfect person to build on Dean Sorensen’s successes,” says business information technology department head Chuck Taylor, who served as department head during the entire 31-year tenure of Richard E. Sorensen.

Taylor says he has sensed a heightened level of energy in the college: “Bob has a lot of new ideas and initiatives to move the college to the next level that have created a lot of excitement.”

A 39-year veteran of Pamplin, Taylor says he is “rapidly moving” toward retirement. “I’m very happy to see the college that I have invested my whole career in be in such good hands for a very promising future.”

Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2014

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