There’s almost never been a day in the life of David H. Blake, dean of UCI’s Graduate School of Management, where mornings didn’t bring another day at school. The son of parents who co-founded a community-based independent elementary school back East, he grew up not only steeped in formal education, but also with the nurturing kind of learning that comes from parents committed to bringing fresh experiences to their children.
“We literally lived on the fourth floor of the school where my father was headmaster,” he recalls. He also fondly remembers family trips to the nation’s battlefields, where the Revolutionary War and the Civil War played out. That fascination with history, instilled by his parents, acted as the catalyst for Blake’s love of business and the mechanics that drive it.
“History was exciting. It was very real,” says Blake. “And that’s one of the things I like so much about the business world. It’s filled with drama, it’s filled with heroes and villains, brilliant insights and foolish mistakes, and that’s very exciting to me.”
Now, as one of the nation’s premier business educators and scholars, Blake has taken on a headmaster’s role of his own as he leads UCI’s endeavor to educate the next generation of business leaders who are destined to take charge as the old economy evolves to the new.
While some may be disheartened by the gyrations of a marketplace churned by the forces of globalization and technological innovation, for Blake they represent the new frontier as he leads the Graduate School of Management into a future filled with unknowable challenges.
“I guess when you’ve been around as long as I have, one recognizes that change is endemic,” says Blake. “Since one is not able to predict the future, you have to be able to take advantage of whatever the future brings.”
Since 1997, when Blake took over the reins at the Graduate School of Management, the ability to stay focused in the midst of change has kept him from jumping on any bandwagons as the latest fads swept the marketplace. Rather, he has steered a course that assures the school’s graduates can handle whatever business challenges the economy ultimately hands up.
“What the school has been doing, is doing, and continues to do is to focus on business fundamentals, and how information and technology are changing the way business is done,” he says.
For Ahn Tran, a recent graduate, that approach has made all the difference. After receiving her MBA from the business school last year, she was hired as a project manager in corporate strategic planning by Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in Novato, Calif.
“One of the things my training did was allow me to look at how information fits strategically within an organization,” Tran says.
“That’s one of the reasons Fireman’s Fund recruited me, and continues to look at GSM as one of the places where they want to recruit. They recognize that its students are more adept.”
This kind of response affirms Blake’s belief that the school’s information technology for management focus has created an environment where academic learning yields practical, real-life skills necessary for success now and in the future.
“Business thrives on information, and it is the essence of the various decisions and strategies that make a business run,” says Blake. “We’re educating people in finance, marketing, whatever area of business it is, who understand how information, and the technology that makes it so readily available, are absolutely changing the way business is done.”
Conceived over a decade ago by a group of faculty who wanted a distinctive, differentiating orientation for the school, information technology for management (ITM) has turned what was once perceived as a small, regional school without much of a comparative advantage into an internationally recognized MBA program. This year, GSM is ranked #1 internationally by theFinancial Times for its ITM focus.
Although Blake is heartened by the recognition media rankings bring, he gauges the school’s success by, what are to him, more meaningful measures. GSM attracts some of the brightest students in the world, Blake says, with average GMAT scores that place the school among the top 20 out of more than 700 nationwide.
Despite intense competition for business school faculty, Blake says UCI continually is able to attract and keep top-notch faculty members. In addition to teaching, those scholars generate quality research that has an international impact on business knowledge.
Another important measure is that businesses are attracted to GSM students and their knowledge of how to use the power of information and technology to gain strategic advantage. For instance, Blake says one MBA graduate is using the tools and techniques he acquired at GSM to identify the best markets for various products sold by a major U.S. health care company doing business in Europe. Meanwhile, more senior executives are consulting this alum to take advantage of his advanced knowledge of sophisticated information systems.
An increasing number of leading companies are recruiting MBAs from UCI, including Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Gateway and PIMCO.
The success of the Graduate School of Management’s programs, however, has created a whole new set of challenges for Blake. The present, elevated plateau has become the staging area for the next round of growth.
“We have been given enthusiastic approval to double the number of full-time MBA graduates,” says Blake. In addition to increasing that complement from 300 to 600, he wants to add another 160 slots to the part-time, executive MBA program, increasing the number of students there to 800.
With the additional students, Blake says he anticipates needing to nearly double the size of the faculty, too, from the current 43 members to 73. Plans for a new building that provides a cohesive, integrated working environment for faculty and students are also in the making.
But Blake rejects growth merely for growth’s sake. Rather, he sees GSM’s expansion as the next logical step toward attaining its rightful place among the most prominent business schools in the world.
“Good schools like ours are competing nationally and internationally for students, because students who are very bright can go almost anywhere in the world,” says Blake. “We’re competing for first-rate faculty, because there is a shortage of business school faculty. And we’re also competing for corporate attention, because recruiters go where they can get enough quality people to make it worthwhile. That’s why doubling the size of the MBA program is so crucial.”
Blake acknowledges that “this won’t be easy,” but there’s little doubt that, like the CEO of a major corporation, he has the business and organizational acumen to get the job done.
A business school dean for more than two decades, he is an authority on business strategy, leadership and management. Not one to stay put in academia’s ivory tower, Blake has served as an advisor on global business strategies and leadership development for major U.S. corporations such as AT&T, IBM and Alcoa, and also on boards of publicly-traded companies and smaller technology-based firms.
Even with all that expertise, Blake recognizes that getting the job done will require building upon the relationships he has created within both the academic and business communities.
“Our plans for future growth will involve a real partnership that is now being put together,” Blake says. “It involves support from the state, the University of California and the UCI campus, and it will require support from the business community.”
The school’s exceptional approach to management education has already captured the attention of corporate and business leaders who value their interactions with the GSM. An advisory board comprising many of Orange County’s top business executives, for instance, plays a major role by offering insights and expertise.
Dwight W. Decker, chairman and CEO of Conexant Systems, Inc., a communications and semiconductor company headquartered in Newport Beach, is a member of the advisory board. Last year, the company entered into a multi-year, multifaceted educational partnership with GSM that involves creation of a customized executive development program for the company’s managers, internships at Conexant for MBA students, and a Conexant award recognizing excellence in teaching in the core curriculum of the full-time MBA program.
“Dean Blake plays the key role in the outreach to the business community,” Decker says. “He’s got a structured way to get engaged with all these people and companies to clearly make the Graduate School of Management as relevant as possible. That input helps to shape the curriculum and the strategic focus of the business school.”
As for Blake’s approach to the job ahead, Decker says, “He is quite a high-energy, optimistic person. He believes in the prospects for the future, has a clear vision of what he’d like the school to become and is a very passionate and articulate advocate for that vision.”
Mary Gilly, a professor of marketing at GSM for the past 19 years, appreciates the fresh perspective Blake brought to the school.
“He came at the time when we had already achieved quite a bit of success with information technology for management, and other universities and MBA programs were jumping on board and taking away some of the uniqueness we enjoyed,” Gilly recalls. “But as an outsider coming in, he rightly asked whether this was something sustainable, or whether we needed to look at it again. It took an outsider, and someone who was interacting with the business community, to say that this has been great so far, and we can make it even better.”
To his credit, Blake has accomplished the important task of making connections to the business community while at the same time maintaining and honoring the school’s academic independence, Gilly says. “It’s very positive that Lincoln Mercury has a nice relationship with us for instance, where they are supporting our ITM lab in the marketing area and they’re supporting research and teaching efforts in that area.”
So what’s in store? Innovation and responding to change, says Blake. In January, the Irvine Innovation Initiative, referred to as “I Cubed” (I3), opened its doors in a trailer near the school. Designed to provide the garage-like environment from which some of America’s greatest corporations sprang, it offers a space that is open 24/7 for students who are developing their own businesses even while in school. Another program that encourages innovation is the ThinkTank/GSM New Venture Business Plan Competition. Both I3 and the competition give students exposure to business leaders who serve as advisors and mentors. And both may involve students from other schools and departments on campus as part of the student teams.
“This all came about because we realized several years ago that our students and our immediate graduates were actively involved in founding new companies,” says Blake. “There were quite a number of students who were doing this and we felt very excited about it. So we said, ‘why not facilitate this?'”
Despite an economy that has suddenly grown uncertain, Blake remains ever optimistic about GSM and the power of the students, faculty and administration to achieve even greater recognition and status in a now global marketplace.
“The key thing to understand is that this school has embarked on a very strategic decision to be a highly distinctive and different MBA program,” Blake says. “It is truly focused on the future and the changes that are bound to evolve in a technology-driven society. Our objective is to be best in class in this effort.”
Is Blake worried at all about the future? Not by even a fraction of a percentage point.
“When you have great students, and you have great faculty, and you have community and business supporters, good things are bound to happen.”