Paul Almeida is quick to mention that he has been at Georgetown for 22 years and 71 days. The first 22 years were spent being a professor of strategy and international business and deputy and associate dean, and in August, 71 days before he sat down with the Voice for an interview on October 11, he started his new job as dean of the McDonough School of Business. He talked about his plans for the future of the MSB, and the how he hopes to affect the university as a whole during his tenure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You started this new position in August, but you have been at the university for 22 years. How do the 71 days as dean compare to the other 22 years you have been at Georgetown?
It’s not been that different, because for the last seven years I was in charge of executive education, and then executive education and innovation, so I’m used to being both an administrator, and a faculty member. I will always be a teacher at heart, and I will always be someone who is trying to serve Georgetown. I feel I have to play some different roles, because that’s my responsibility as a dean. I feel there is a greater opportunity to share in my vision and what I care about and maybe even influence people a little more than before. But the really nice part about it is that it’s the same Georgetown, it’s the same McDonough, it’s the same people I care about and want to work with.
How do you think your time as a faculty member and a professor helped prepare you for this new position?
Since I’ve been here 22 years, I have gotten to know everyone at Georgetown, and that takes some time because we’re a big university. I think I know everyone in the school, and I think I know everyone in the university’s senior leadership. I understand the culture here, both the strengths and some of the challenges as well, and that’s important.
And, I understand the fact that we have even greater potential than our present reality. So, because of these 22 years I’ve seen the possibilities, I know what we can achieve, and that keeps me excited going forward. I think that if I had come here from the outside I would’ve had to take two or three years just learning where all the light switches are.
Have there been any surprises in the 71 days, after those 22 years?
No real surprises. I’m learning a little bit about myself. I’m learning that I miss action. I miss when I was in Executive Education, and when I would have a break I’d walk up to the faculty offices and chat with people. I love that. Here my day is pretty heavily scheduled, literally from morning to night, and I have a lot of meetings, and that casual, informal interaction is restricted. I do miss that. I try to escape sometimes if they let me go, and I try to scoot away and chat with people.
Thinking about a couple months down the road after you’ve settled in a bit more, are there any sort of programs you want to institute?
You could’ve asked me that question a year ago and I would’ve had an answer. We intend to do three things. One is we have to be smart, and being smart is aligning our organization with our finances and with our strategy, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Organizations change very slowly, but we’re determined to do that, and I’ve appointed a senior associate dean in charge of of organization, strategy, and finance for that purpose.
Second, the world is changing really fast, but organizations, especially educational ones, have not embraced technology as they should. Haven’t embraced what learning could be, so that students understand not just the tools and techniques, but the context in which to make things work. So we’re going to have to be innovative on multiple dimensions regarding technology and otherwise.
Third, we’re going to have to be distinctive. When industries get mature, you have to compete by embracing who you are. You find your niche and you make it work for you. We want to try and create distinctiveness along three dimensions. One, we have great schools here, and we should be collaborating with them in different ways. Secondly, we’re a Jesuit school. I think that’s important in a world where you don’t know what’s news or fake news or what values matter or don’t matter. Georgetown, with its 500 years of Jesuit heritage, has shown that multinationals can survive and thrive provided they are guided by the right values. Thirdly, Washington D.C. is a cool place. 22 years ago when I came here, D.C. wasn’t quite the place that it is today. This is a magnificent environment in which to learn, in which to deal with the world’s big challenges and solutions. We have to embrace that through our programs.
If we do these three things, we will be a truly distinctive business school, and university. Earlier this week, we announced a collaboration with the School of Foreign Service. We’re going to start a joint global business major with them. This will be the first joint school major at the undergraduate level in the history of Georgetown. In two or three years we plan to have a joint degree with the SFS. Nothing like this has happened in the history of Georgetown, but also in the history of most other universities, and in doing so we can give undergraduates an opportunity which they can get at no other school.
That’s similar to the Master’s in International Business and Policy, which you started as Deputy Dean of Executive Education and Innovation. Will you be starting more programs like that?
Starting the global executive MBA, and then starting the Master’s in International Business and Policy, we were using that as a lab to test what the market wanted and what we could offer and do really well in. In the first year we had no shortage of applications. People were willing to pay a lot of money to come here, and they were fascinated by what they were learning.
With the role technology can play, I really think using machine learning and artificial intelligence, I can make sure that subject matter that sounds intimidating can not just be easy, but can be taught in such a way that you will remember it, and you will have growing confidence in yourself and be able to utilize it efficiently.
Is that focus on technology a direction you would like to take the business school in?
I’d like to take the university in that direction. I think we have a responsibility to give students the best possible learning opportunity they can have, and we can do better than 200 person classes through technology. I can make sure you have the ultra smart tutor who can understand exactly how you are learning, and build you up in such a way that no human being can, and it can be totally personalized.
If we can do that, should we do that? Don’t you deserve the best possible learning journey that we can create? If we can do that, we can use the professors to sit with small groups of students and really delve deeper and go into new areas. We’re going to go in that direction, not overnight, but slowly. We have to keep our eyes on true north, and if we can do anything that improves your learning experience, and improves your formation, and improves scholarship and research we have to do it, it’s just a question of when and how.
As a part of standing out as a school, McDonough was ranked number 17 by Bloomberg in 2016 in Business schools. Is that something you think about, or would you rather do your own work and see changes be reflected in those?
There are plenty of rankings, and whether we like it or not rankings to some extent matter. In executive education, we decided we would focus on excellence, and we are really going to try to do whatever we can to make Georgetown the best in could be. Guess what happened. Most of our rankings turned out wonderfully. We were number one in International Business in the world. We never talked about rankings, we talked about really being the best we could be, and that’s what we should concentrate on. We need to be aware that rankings do matter, but we should focus on being truly excellent, and then explaining to other people why this excellence matters.
You can’t be the best at everything. You have to choose your peaks, and for us, it’s this intersection of international business and policy and politics, and it’s the emphasis on student learning being maximized and giving students the tools and techniques and contexts in which to make them work, so when you start working you can realize the value of your education. If we do that, I believe the rankings can and will follow.
Having excellence for students and making sure they’re doing well after they graduate, that sounds like your goal as dean.
Yes. In the end, if I can make sure you have a greater learning and formational experience by the time you’ve finished, then I’m on the right track.
Finally, thinking beyond when this class graduates and when the incoming freshman graduate, when your time as dean comes to an end, where would you like to see McDonough and Georgetown, and what sort of impact would you like to have made?
It’s not about me, it’s about Georgetown and McDonough being on a continuous journey to educate. Not just when students are here for four years, but across time. One of the big initiatives we are starting is called Lifelong Learning. We have to be a part of your life forever. Not just for our sake, but for your sake as well.
You have so many years ahead of you in a changing world where your jobs are going to be very different, and is our role as Georgetown done? No. We have the best opportunity of providing you with continuous learning by linking you up with people in your field, by allowing you to come back for formal or informal courses, and by using technology to link you with the latest, best practices. We have a big responsibility towards that.
What will make me really happy, feeling like we never got it perfectly right but were on a continuous journey of doing best by our students when they are here and when they are in their wheelchairs, and everywhere in between.