The Paul Merage School of Business has a new dean, Ian Williamson. Although he began his role on Jan. 1, Williamson only arrived on campus on June 24 – all the way from an island at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere. Before coming to UCI, he was pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the Wellington School of Business and Government at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington.
Williamson’s academic career has taken him across the U.S. and all over the world, from Australia to Switzerland to Indonesia and now to sunny Irvine. However, his identity is rooted in the Midwest. “I always describe myself as being from the South Side of Chicago,” Williamson says. “I tell people, ‘If you know that about me, you know a big part of who I am.’”
An avid track athlete in high school, he attended Miami University in rural Ohio with dreams of becoming an Olympic gold medalist. His parents had made a tremendous financial sacrifice to put him – the oldest child in a large family – in college. Williamson knew he had to do his best.
“I remember very vividly my first class. I got there half an hour early – it was an 8 a.m. class – and I was the only person there,” he recalls. “As the room filled up and class started, it dawned on me that I was the only Black kid, and it was the first time in my education that had ever happened to me. I felt physically uncomfortable; it was extremely distracting.”
It was something Williamson had known he would encounter but was nevertheless shocking, especially since he came from a majority Black neighborhood. The unsettling experience transformed into a gift, though, as he came to terms with it.“That prepared me well to be able to relate to and engage with people from different backgrounds,” Williamson says. “I probably would not have learned that as easily if I had just stayed in my comfort zone, where I was from.”
Becoming a business scholar
He excelled in his classes as well as in track and field. However, an injury during his junior year put an end to his track-star aspirations and led him to reflect on his future. With nothing to do but study and no outlet for his energy, Williamson focused on his business classes, which exposed him to the world of organizational behavior, human resource management and psychology.
Suddenly, a passion was born. “I didn’t really know what an academic was, but I knew that was what I was going to do, and it just cascaded from there,” he says.
It was the why behind the success of certain business practices, and the failure of others, that fascinated him. After graduating in 1994 with a B.S. in management, Williamson helped run a $12 million retail business, but the question lingered, so he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. For his dissertation, Williamson studied how Fortune 500 companies hire top-level executives. He found that when candidates are extremely competitive, hiring managers often rely on their social networks, which could have implications for diversity and inclusion.
Bringing diversity to the business side of academia has become Williamson’s life mission. As an undergraduate, he had only one Black professor, who taught African American studies, and there were no Black professors in his business school. The PhD Project, a nonprofit that helps address the issue of underrepresentation at business schools, inspired Williamson and provided him with the support he needed to obtain his doctorate. Over the past 20 years, he has given back to the organization and its cause by developing programs and founding the Management Faculty of Color Association, as well as mentoring numerous students.
A year and a half ago, Williamson was inducted into The PhD Project’s Hall of Fame, its highest honor. “That’s the greatest accomplishment I have ever had,” he says. “To be recognized by that group, which played such a pivotal role in shaping my adult life, to be seen by them as having contributed to what they’re trying to do, I’ll take it. That’s great.”
Applying global lessons in Irvine
Williamson has expanded academic partnerships in Asia and South America and assisted executives in more than 20 countries across six continents. Working abroad as a university faculty member in a rapidly developing nation such as Indonesia was eye-opening. He visited the Southeast Asian country multiple times a year for four or five years to support the area’s business growth and then taught there for six months. It couldn’t have been more different from Williamson’s own background – with an entirely contrasting climate, culture, cuisine and religion – but it was an experience that “stretched” him personally and professionally. “The soil in Indonesia is just so fertile for ideas,” he says. “It’s at a stage of development that America hasn’t seen in over 100 years.”
In some ways, Irvine will be just as foreign as Asia. Williamson is excited to work with Orange County’s thriving business community. Southern California’s unique minority-majority demographics and booming economy are also ripe for innovation, and Williamson intends to bring the lessons he’s learned overseas to the Golden State.
“The culture in America supports innovation in a way that I have never seen in any other country. It’s not even close,” he says. “That energy around creation, ideas, exploration, taking risks – I look forward to that, especially as a business school professor and dean. We’re in an environment that’s one of the best labs in the world to create an idea, craft an enterprise, engage others and go forward with it.”
The business school of the future
The Paul Merage School of Business is a beacon of excellence in Orange County, particularly in its commercialization of technology, Williamson says, and he believes the world should know about it.
“I’ve been to a lot of different communities that are trying to achieve what the Merage School is doing,” he says. “There’s a story to tell about what we’ve been able to do to support the business sector and how we’re able to develop our students to contribute to that environment that I know other communities around the world will benefit from and be interested in hearing.”
With that level of success comes a level of responsibility, Williamson says, particularly to places beyond Southern California. He hopes to enhance the school’s engagement with colleagues in Asia, where a flourishing alumni base resides. Williamson also sees an opportunity to connect with nations in Africa. Just as Southeast Asia has been developing over the last 10 years, he says, the African continent is also undergoing rapid change, creating a demand for business expertise. Developing countries have the potential to lead in the future, he notes, as they build sustainable digital economies from the ground up rather than reworking them into outdated systems. Learning from them, in addition to helping them, is part of the business school’s future, Williamson says.
But being a leader in the digital age is about more than just commercializing technology, he says; it’s about enacting social change, and the Merage School could distinguish itself in that regard too. “Not only should we create and support digital leadership to drive economic outcomes, but we also need to consider how that economic activity shapes social outcomes, and we need to develop leaders capable of driving both positive economic and social outcomes,” Williamson says. “I think this should be a core aspect of our business education offerings and our research.”
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