Jim Jiambalvo reflects on his path to and tenure as dean of the Foster School
Jim Jiambalvo never aspired to be dean of the UW Foster School of Business.
He never dreamed of raising the roof on two world-class buildings (with a third on the way). Or of catalyzing and championing the launch of myriad new degree programs, centers, competitions and initiatives. Or of building a faculty that stands among the world’s elite in teaching and in research. Or of leading a school to climb more places in the rankings than any other over the same period. Or of being named “Dean of the Year” by the premier business school site in the world.
In fact, Jiambalvo’s early dreams amounted to just attending college, much less leading one.
Highest starting salary sounds good
Born in the Chicago area to hard-working parents, Jiambalvo would be the first member of his family to attend four-year college—the University of Illinois—where he studied business. “I wasn’t sure where to specialize,” he says. “But a teaching assistant in one of my accounting classes said that accountants had the highest starting salaries out of college. So, I thought, okay, let’s do that.”
He was grateful to find that accounting suited him well, and he graduated with a job in Chicago at one of the forerunners of Deloitte. Before long, he saw an opportunity for further advancement by returning to Illinois for his master’s degree. “I had to explain to my parents that I wanted to go back to school to get ahead in the job I already had,” Jiambalvo says. “The logic may not have fully gelled, but they were supportive.”
As he pursued his master’s he had an epiphany. He liked thinking about accounting and examining its complexities more than he enjoyed practicing it. This led him to Ohio State University for his PhD, and then onto the accounting faculty of the University of Washington in 1977.
Turns out, I loved it
A lot of Jiambalvo’s reluctance to be considered for the deanship had to do, ironically, with his commitment to making a difference. “I’d been a professor for 27 years,” he says. “I knew I could contribute to research, that I was effective teaching students, and that my service as a faculty member was having an impact. What I didn’t want to do was move into a completely new arena in the last phase of my career and end up falling short.”
However, the faculty believed in him. His wife, Cheryl, gave him a lot of encouragement. And the school’s advisory board saw in him enormous potential to lead the school into a new era.
“Looking back? As it turned out,” Jiambalvo says, “I loved being dean.”
If you build it…
He got right to work, and quickly built momentum. It didn’t hurt that one screaming mandate met him at office door: the school’s outdated and insufficient campus was in mortal need of an expansion, if not an extreme makeover. A bold plan existed, but it was patently unrealistic.
“It was clear that to be competitive we needed new facilities,” Jiambalvo says. “But the proposal underway was completely out of reach—it would have been the most expensive b-school building in the nation.”
Enter Neal Dempsey (BA 1964), Ed Fritzky and Mike Garvey—pillars of the advisory board and supporters extraordinaire of the Foster School. Jiambalvo convened this leadership triumvirate in a meeting with UW President Mark Emmert and negotiated a two-phase approach, the latter of which was slated for state funding assistance.
Generous support from an army of donors led to the construction of PACCAR Hall. Dempsey Hall was largely financed by the university with additional money from private donors. Meanwhile, the historic renaming gift from The Foster Foundation ensured that these new world-class buildings would house the caliber of professors and staff that can take a school from good to great.
And the Foster School’s fortunes took off from there.
All about the team
“Maybe it’s because of my initial reticence,” Jiambalvo says, “but as I’m winding down as dean people ask me what the hardest thing about this job has been.”
He pauses a moment, combing through his memories to see if he’s missed something.
“You know, there isn’t much of a downside to being dean if you have the right team in place. Our faculty is the best it’s ever been, our staff is helping us navigate the changing world of higher education, our students are very bright and highly motivated, our connections to the business community are manifest everywhere you look, and our supporters remain committed to our mission and vision.”
That’s why he’s a little uncomfortable accepting personal recognition such as the 2018 “Dean of the Year” distinction from the influential MBA site Poets & Quants. “I’ve had plenty of occasion to talk shop with deans at other business schools, and when I hear them talk about various problems, it’s almost always on account of something missing or broken at the team level,” he explains. “That’s why I’m 100 percent serious when I tell my colleagues at Foster that ‘Dean of the Year’ is really a team accolade. This is a team sport—you don’t get this far because you have the right dean.”
It’s all changing very quickly
There may be a kernel of truth in that. But having the right dean doesn’t hurt. And on July 1, Jiambalvo will pass the torch to another long-time leader promoted from within Foster’s deep bench of faculty. Frank Hodge, the Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor of Accounting, chair of the Department of Accounting and UW Faculty Athletics Representative, enters the deanship with the school on a high, but with plenty of challenges ahead.
What does Jiambalvo see in the b-school crystal ball?
“More components of education are going online, business disciplines are rapidly becoming more quantitative and dependent on analytics, then you’ve got AI, machine learning, fin-tech, blockchain… it’s all changing very quickly,” he says.
“Luckily for us, Frank is going to hit the ground running. Here we have an incoming dean who’s played a strong leadership role at Foster and won every award we have. Frank was one of only six researchers nationwide invited to participate in the initial Financial Accounting Standards Research Initiative. And he’s also demonstrated leadership representing Husky Athletics to the Pac-12 Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.”
‘I’ll be back’
Jiambalvo may not have experienced much downside to being dean, but he did sacrifice a lot in service to the school (and logged hundreds of thousands of miles and many months on the road). That makes the one-year sabbatical he’ll begin in July look—in the best way—like an empty canvas.
He’ll take a golf lesson or two to improve his game. Do some traveling with his wife, Cheryl, including a planned trip to Europe. “But what I’m really looking forward to is time with our grandkids,” he says. “Cheryl and I have eight of them to spoil.”
If Jiambalvo’s extraordinary tenure as dean of the Foster School is coming to a close, his time on Foster’s faculty is not.
“I’m really excited about the sabbatical,” he says. “But before you know it, I’ll be back. As of July 1, 2020, I’ll be coming to campus not as dean, but as a proud member of our accounting faculty.”
– Eric Nobis