Growing up in Mansfield, Mass., Albert Niemi learned the lessons of business and economics from his entrepreneurial father at the family dinner table. His exposure to the day-to-day realities and challenges of working people influenced his career path and he became a doyen of economics. Niemi completed his doctorate at the University of Connecticut at the age of 25 and was promptly appointed assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia.
After a succession of rapid career advances, Dr. Niemi was appointed dean of the Terry College of Business at UGA in 1982 when he was only 39. Early in his career, Niemi had a penchant for identifying economic trends. His early predictions about economic migration from the Northeast to the Sunbelt continued to pan out in his career as he ultimately became dean of Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in 1997.
Arriving more than a month ahead of schedule, Dean Niemi began to fulfill the promises of the school through a series of lofty initiatives. At that time, the newly appointed SMU President R. Gerald Turner began an ambitious capital-raising campaign. The timing was perfect to ramp up Dallas community involvement, an initial mission handed down by Turner to the new dean. Accordingly, in his first 100 days, the dean met with more than 1,000 people in the Dallas community.
“Cox, Dean Niemi believed he could ‘build a world-class business school,’ he recalled. ‘It was going to be a new chapter in my life, after public university experiences.’ He was attracted to Dallas and the Cox School, and the opportunities afforded by a private university in a dynamic epicenter of economic growth.”
Walking the halls of Cox, Dean Niemi began bolstering the Cox School faculty and student body in earnest, while simultaneously energizing Dallas leaders’ engagement with the school. In a testament of partnership, Niemi credits Senior Associate Dean Bill Dillon as his right-hand man, and someone who could successfully manage and lead internal academic affairs. Always on the same wavelength, the dean said, “when visiting each other’s offices, we rarely sat down. We might have circled my coffee table a couple of times, and arrived at decisions very quickly because of our like-mindedness.” Niemi describes Dillon as a highly-respected academic and “a god among researchers.”
Initially, the dean’s goals were to raise the quality of graduate and undergraduate students and program offerings. His flagship undergraduate initiative was the BBA Scholars Program, which set higher standards for admission to the business school and attracted high-achieving students. SAT scores are now in the mid-1400s. Similarly, GMAT scores also began mirroring the dean’s ambitions.
During his tenure, the Full-Time MBA program migrated from a traditional semester to module format, enhancing the learning potential for students. Through focus and efforts by faculty and staff, the Cox MBA’s recognition increased substantially, as did the Executive and Professional MBA programs, achieving rankings of No. 3 and 7, respectively. The school’s national and international visibility was thriving. Today, Cox’s BBA, MBA, Professional MBA and Executive MBA programs are ranked among the best in the world by Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, Financial Times, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report. However, his expansion of opportunities for faculty and students did not end there.
Commitment to Faculty
Throughout the Niemi era, he made strides in increasing the caliber and commitment of faculty and rewarded them for their accomplishments. The school now boasts more than 30 endowed academic positions and faculty fellowships, a part of the dean’s massive fundraising efforts — growing the endowment from $78 million to $225 million. Niemi noted, “It was easy to ask community leaders and alumni to invest in the young men and women who would, in turn, contribute to a better society.” These efforts also led to the creation of 11 centers of excellence and institutes supporting the functions and wide interests of the business school.
To the benefit of students, over 60 endowed scholarships and fellowships were established. Niemi became known for his flair for marketing the Cox School and its heightened reputation. He says he learned his public relations skills and how to be a dean from his wife Maria: “She is gifted at entering a room full of people and making them feel at ease.” As a masterful entertainer, Maria, with the dean, welcomed countless numbers of people into their home over his 20-year tenure.
Known as a community leader, Niemi elevated the reputation of the Cox deanship in Dallas business society. The dean’s nationally and internationally expanding Executive Board became populated with chief executives from Fluor Corp., INVESCO, Flowserve, American Airlines, Texas Instruments and The Container Store, to name but a few. In 2005, a major accomplishment was the building of the James M. Collins Executive Education Center, a state-of-the-art facility that shared its mission with the larger business community.
Niemi also tapped Cox alumni to support the upward trajectory of Cox. Niemi believed “an academic institution could never be better than the accomplishments of its alumni.” Under director Kevin Knox, alumni relations and outreach were racheted up, alongside new publications like CoxToday to communicate to stakeholders precisely how the School was progressing.
The many corporations relocating to Dallas needed well-educated employees, to the Cox School’s benefit. Always knowing the relevant trend lines important to corporate leaders, Dean Niemi notes, “The momentum of firms and people moving to Texas has been accelerating. Large multinational firms in major industries are side-by-side in Dallas now.” With executives and managers now serving on various Cox boards, the dean counts 600 to 700 community and business leaders familiar with what is happening at Cox. In 2000, with support from American Airlines, global rigor was added as a requirement of the MBA program through a mandatory immersion experience in Europe, China, Japan, India or Latin America. Locally, firms such as PwC, AMR Investments, Bank of Texas, Sprint and EY funded briefing series, lectures and other forms of community outreach.
“Known as a community leader, Niemi elevated the reputation of the Cox deanship in Dallas business society.”
The dean’s quest to elevate the Cox brand was a success on many levels. In addition to engaging the business community of Dallas and the nation, the leadership capacities of the Cox School faculty and staff brought global recognition to SMU. As a testament to excellence, in The Economist’s recent MBA survey, the Cox faculty was ranked 6th in the world. “I have always told young deans that the faculty is your board of directors, and who you should listen to,” says the dean from experience. “With their support, you can do great things. Don’t think that you are the boss, or you will be a failure.”
Of his many accomplishments, Niemi says “I am most proud of making this a place where people want to come to work every day. It’s the culture.” Having served as a dean for 35 years, which he never planned, he recalls, amused, someone asking him whether he knows if his first name is “Al” or “Dean.”
Niemi opines that education is a people business. Interestingly, he enthusiastically conveys teachings of the U.S. Constitution in his class, The Evolution of American Capitalism — by the people, for the people — something Dean Niemi understands on a deep and personal level.
Coming full circle, having begun his career as a professor, he will return to teaching at his namesake Niemi Center for Economic Growth and Leadership Development. Also on his agenda is spending time with his family, and especially his grandchildren, at his Hilton Head Island, S.C., vacation home that he has rarely had time to visit.
Dean Niemi’s legacy consists of thousands of students with a first-class education, seasoned faculty and staff who are loyal to the Cox mission and community leaders committed to spending their time on the Cox School’s worthy endeavors. Thank you, Dean Niemi.