Light & Verity

Surprise exit by SOM dean

Plans to run "Apple University."

In the midst of a capital campaign, a new curriculum, and a building project, School of Management dean Joel Podolny is leaving to pursue a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." View full image

Students, faculty, and staff of the School of Management got the news by e-mail on the morning of October 22: Joel Podolny, the dean who has led an overhaul of the school's curriculum and its planning for a new campus, was stepping down -- in ten days, a year and a half before his five-year term was up. Sharon Oster, a 30-year veteran on the SOM faculty, would fill out his term as dean. What's more, he was leaving to become vice president of Apple Computer and dean of something called Apple University. "There was a palpable sense of 'WTF?'" said first-year MBA student John Bourne at a schoolwide meeting that afternoon. Bourne described shocked students reading the e-mail on BlackBerrys and laptops in class and sharing the news with their equally surprised professors.

By all accounts, things had been going well between Podolny and the school. "Joel's approval rating, if there was such a thing, would have been in the 90s," says management professor Douglas Rae, who adds that he was "gobsmacked" by Podolny's decision. SOM is in the third year of a radical curriculum revision, and applications are up 50 percent since 2003. The faculty has grown by 20 percent, including some tenured professors who were lured away from Stanford, Wharton, and other schools. Podolny has helped raise more than $170 million of SOM's $300 million goal for its capital campaign, which includes the funding for a new campus on Whitney Avenue slated to open in 2012. More than one very large gift is said to be in negotiations.

All this left some faculty and students wondering if this was a good time for Podolny to leave. Rae likens the situation to "the pilot checking out at just about the time the plane gets to air speed" (though he adds that "it's a good thing we have such an able co-pilot" in Oster). Students at the school meeting voiced concern about what effect the news would have on the school's "brand," especially with prospective students and employers. One student asked Podolny how he reconciled his decision with the "values-based leadership" the school espouses.

In response, Podolny reiterated points he'd made in the e-mail to the school community. "I would not consider leaving if I did not feel that the school was on a strong footing," he had written. He told the Yale Alumni Magazine that the job at Apple is a "once-in-a lifetime opportunity," adding, "If it were up to me it would have happened five years from now, but we can't control the timing."

Podolny and other faculty expressed great confidence in Oster. "I'm very optimistic about Sharon's leadership," says SOM professor and deputy provost Judith Chevalier ’89. "She's a very organized person with great managerial skills." Oster jokes that she is "looking forward to taking all the credit for the initiatives Joel had begun."

Just what will Podolny be doing at Apple? That appears to be a closely guarded secret. Podolny's announcement was the first public statement about the initiative called Apple University, and neither he nor an Apple spokesman would say anything more about it.

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