Q&A: Dean Lawson, GVSU Seidman College of Business

By Kayla Sosa

Diana Lawson brings years of international business and business leadership experience to her role as the Dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University. She has led and taught at universities nationally and internationally and has been published on a variety of topics. In honor of Women’s History Month in March, Lawson sat down to talk about her role as dean and her thoughts on business, and gender bias.

CEI: What is it that you do in your role as dean of the college of business?

Dean Diana Lawson: Deans have really interesting positions because we do a lot of different things and there are seldom two days that are the same. We have a lot of responsibilities. My main responsibility is the [business] college, in terms of everything that happens within the college. I’m responsible to make sure we are providing the best quality and relevant education to our students as we possibly can. And that entails many things; leading the faculty, making sure we have staff support, making sure we have the curriculum we need.

CEI: How unique is the business college’s function compared to other colleges and disciplines across campus?

We’re a little bit different than some of the other disciplines in higher education. Because we’re business, we are academic, but we also connect to the business world outside of the institution. We kind of straddle the line between academics and business. As a result, a good amount of my work is external. I’m working with companies so that our students have internships, so that companies want to come here to hire our students, so I have to balance what I do outside versus what I do inside.

The biggest contribution I can make, and it fits my personality and who I am, is looking in the future and saying, ‘Okay, what is it we need to be doing today so that we have a curriculum that’s ready for our students in ten years.’

CEI: What kind of changes are you looking to make to prepare for the future?

Dean: Technology is speeding up the change in how we do things. I see my responsibility as helping the college to change the way it delivers curriculum, the content of that curriculum and what we need to be doing to help our students succeed. So that’s what I spend a lot of my time on. I don’t actually do all of the work, but I engage and empower others to make sure that we’re all moving in the same direction. I do not consider myself to be an expert on how to do everything, but I certainly do know how to ask questions and find people who do. So, if we all work together as a team we can really make some strides in what I call ‘curriculum innovation,’ in terms of how we deliver curriculum to our students. Because students don’t learn the same way today as they did when I was in college, even 15 years ago.

CEI: So, what does the curriculum look like?

Dean: Our curriculum has three components to it. A lot of what we do is very entrepreneurial, as entrepreneurs come up with new things, new innovations on how to do things – that’s what we have to do in higher ed.

What companies are saying is, the content is good, but today you can get content … online, you can get it from different places, you don’t have to get it from us in a classroom. It’s still important, and you can’t forget the content, but it’s not enough. What companies are saying, is the students have to practice … That’s supported by what our employers say, because what they say is when they hire our students, they actually know how to do something. They don’t just know about it, but they know how to run financial analysis or put together a marketing plan or put together a business plan for some new innovation, because they’ve had opportunities to practice. So, we’ve put a lot of experiential learning activities in our classrooms, and we also have internships.

We call that knowing, and doing. And then the third part (of the curriculum) is being. We help our students to grow professionally and some personally.

CEI: What are your reflections on being a woman in the business world?

Dean: I think it’s a challenge, it’s still a challenge. There are unconscious biases that are in everybody. It doesn’t mean they’re all bad, it just means we have preconceived responses to different situations, whether it’s different people, whether we’re in a different country, whether it’s a different kind of food. We get that all from our culture, and we learn our culture before we’re five years old … Those biases, especially in the United States, show us clear gender roles and expectations between men and women. And, typically, one of the role expectations for women is not to be leaders in business. They can be support people in business, but not leaders in business. So, naturally it has been more of a challenge for women to move up in organizations. And that challenge and the resistance is from both men and women.

It takes intentionality to really change some of those biases. They’re natural reactions and habits. Our brain has two ways of thinking: system one and system two. System one is the lazy way, system two is the more deliberate, intentional.

In order to change, in terms of moving women forward, we need to make it much more intentional and much more deliberate.

CEI: What are your thoughts on entrepreneurship?

Dean: I think entrepreneurship is a valuable addition to all of our students. If you look at the world today, innovation and change is going to be critical to future success. Companies are not going to be able to stay the way they’ve been and survive in the long run. Entrepreneurship is not just for people who want to start their own business, it’s for everybody who wants to be able to work more creatively and more innovatively, and that’s what our companies need.

CEI: What’s next for the business college?

Dean: To continue to innovate in our curriculum so that our students have the ability to be nimble and to adjust to the future trends in organizations. To be the leaders, and not the followers. That’s my goal for students and that’s what we’re working on; so that means innovating curriculum – in terms of how we deliver it and what it is.

There are a lot of markets that we’re not meeting and we’re not serving at this point. Employers need new graduates with skills, but they also need to retrain many of their employees and we need to help with that, too. It could be in a degree, it could be in badges and different kinds of credentials. We have a new credential that we just created called “Emerging Leaders” and it’s for people who have undergraduate degrees in technical areas. Maybe they were a medical technician of some sort or some manufacturing at a technical level. They have an undergraduate degree and they’re being put into supervisory positions, but they don’t know how an organization operates. And so, “Emerging Leaders” gives them a basic overview of how businesses work and the beginning of leadership development, how they work.

That’s our next move, in terms of where we go with education.


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