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Dean's Corner: Building a Reputation Through Strategic Collaboration and Assessment

May 2015

Doug Shackelford

By Douglas A. Shackelford, Dean and Meade H. Willis Distinguished Professor of Taxation, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


One of the first realizations that struck me after I was appointed dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School was that I had a lot to learn.

Even though I had served on the faculty for 25 years—including stints as associate dean for two degree programs—there was still a lot I didn’t know. What I did know was that with lots of programs and audiences, setting priorities and making strategic choices was critical.

To succeed in the role, a dean must connect and engage with the various constituencies that the school serves. Doing so requires a thorough understanding of the organization—from programs and centers to operations, faculty and staff, and everything in between—and the competitive environment in which it operates. For any new dean, this is a complex challenge.

Six months into my first year as dean, I set an ambitious goal—for UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School to be ranked among the top 10 in the world in every academic program and area, according to major media rankings.

As a school, we set our own standards of excellence. I take great pride in the world-class education we provide and the community we have built. I also recognize that prospective students, donors, recruiters, and other key stakeholders judge us by rankings, which have an impact on our global brand.

Setting the top-10 goal not only served as a mechanism for me to learn about each area of the school in great detail but also helped identify resource needs and develop a strategic, data-driven action plan to address them.

At some point, each of our academic programs and areas has likely asked and answered the question of what it would take to be in the top 10. But to my knowledge, the school has never done a thorough evaluation of the entire organization to determine what resources we need to achieve top rankings across the board.

For any organization, a project of this magnitude is a huge undertaking. This was especially true for UNC Kenan-Flagler, which serves a diverse range of students—from teenagers to Baby Boomers—through our portfolio of programs. After announcing the goal, I asked the senior leadership team to evaluate their respective programs and academic areas and compile reports that do the following:

• Define the criteria for achieving a top 10 ranking

• Assess their program’s current standings according to those measures

• Detail what resources they need to achieve, maintain or enhance their standing in the top 10

• Share their views on significant challenges to retain or achieve a top-10 ranking

We used this strategic exercise to identify areas that need improvement and to look for operational synergies among our programs that would allow us to use our resources more effectively. The process also spurred ideas and sparked conversations across the school about how to improve on our pillars of success.

I could not have been more pleased with the reports. They were better than I anticipated and reflected a great deal of thought and effort. They also provided valuable insights into how different groups within the school view themselves and others.

I grouped the findings and resource requests into three categories:

• Easy to fix and can be addressed quickly

• Harder to fix and require long-term planning and, in some cases, short-term solutions for the interim

• Cannot be controlled

As might be expected, many of the needs and requests for resources—such as additional fellowship dollars and faculty hires—did not come as a surprise, as they are already key focus areas. The feedback also showed that our academic programs and areas were, across the board, extremely eager to build on existing communications initiatives and explore additional content and marketing opportunities. The reports also revealed valuable insights on unexpected issues. I learned, for instance, that physical space constraints are perceived as a much bigger obstacle than I had previously realized.

Engaging all of our stakeholders in the process strengthened trust and understanding that resources and investments would be allocated in alignment with our strategic priorities to make the greatest impact for the school. As each program and area improves, the entire school will benefit and advance in key areas.

Our next steps will be to discuss two key questions with our program and academic area leaders:

• How do we ensure continued success for programs that consistently rank in the top 10?

• What can we learn from our programs that have achieved top-10 rankings that can help the rest of the school?

To paraphrase a well-known quote, what gets measured gets managed and done. Going forward, we will repeat the evaluation process annually. We will use the baseline metrics we established to track our progress and create a strategic, data-driven roadmap for our future.

This exercise has been invaluable for me, and for the school. I firmly believe that our top-10 goal is well within reach, and we now have a better understanding of the needs and resources we need to get there.

Whether you are a new dean or have held the role for some time, I cannot overstate the tremendous benefits that can be gained from setting a goal that challenges you to look at the bigger picture and identify strategic actions to address your school’s needs. My only regret is not having started this process on my first day as dean.


Douglas A. Shackelford is the dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and Meade H. Willis Distinguished Professor of Taxation. He is a seasoned academic leader, business education innovator, and internationally recognized scholar. An award-winning researcher and teacher, his work focuses on taxes and business strategy. His current areas of interest include the effects of shareholder taxes on equity prices, taxation of multinationals, and disclosure of corporate tax information. Shackelford served as the first associate dean of MBA@UNC, the innovative online MBA program, from 2010 until he became dean on Feb. 1, 2014. He served as senior associate dean for academic affairs from 2003-07, and associate dean of the Master of Accounting Program from 1998-2002. Shackelford has published widely in accounting, economics, finance, and law journals. He has held visiting faculty positions at Stanford University, Universiteit Maastricht in the Netherlands, and Oxford University. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan and his BS from UNC-Chapel Hill.