How an Endowment Can Enhance Research, Build a Career Path and Shape a Faculty

If you’ve ever walked by the Cox School’s Fincher Building on a weekend morning or stayed late into the dinner hour on a weeknight, you’ve likely seen the light on in Senior Associate Dean Bill Dillon’s office. His work ethic is respected among colleagues, but from his own perspective, working seven days a week isn’t really work so much as simply a part of who he is. It earned him early recognition in academia and brought him to the Cox School in 1994 as the Herman W. Lay Professor of Marketing, an endowed position — the third of three endowed positions he’s held throughout his career.

The Early Years

Dillon developed his strong work ethic growing up in New York City. His father died young, and he began working to help make ends meet. Dillon describes himself at that time as a “young kid who took a job as a stock boy” at S.H. Kress and Company, a “five and dime” retail store in the Brooklyn borough neighborhood of Canarsie. The retail environment was not only a comfortable fit for young Dillon, but an invigorating one. He thrived on the challenge of balancing a full load at school and long hours at work. By the time he began attending what is now Lehman College, one of the four-year colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, he had already worked himself up to assistant manager at Kress. “What I would do is book early classes, work from 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day and work the weekends.” Sound familiar?

“I loved retail, I loved the community, the family,” Dillon recollects. “I think I would have stayed there, but I also wanted to go back for my MBA.” While working toward his MBA at Baruch College in Manhattan, also part of CUNY, Dillon distinguished himself. “The department chair asked if I would consider teaching. At Baruch, the CUNY system’s primary business college, there are literally ten thousand business majors. Consequently, they relied on Ph.D. students to teach, and I was thinking about pursuing my Ph.D. because I really enjoyed learning.” Dillon enrolled in Baruch’s Ph.D. program and went part-time with his management job, moving to the Kress corporate headquarters in Manhattan.

Although he ended up not pursuing a career in retail, his formative years in that world informed his academic interests. He gravitated from economics into a joint Ph.D. degree in quantitative methods (statistics) and marketing. “I got very interested in statistics. Marketing was the functional area, the discipline that I saw as offering the greatest opportunity to apply the kinds of techniques I was learning. I was interested in discrete multivariate techniques and saw their applicability to solving a variety of marketing problems.”

Rising Through the Ranks

After he completed his Ph.D., Dillon rose up the professorial ranks quickly, beginning as an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He dedicated long hours to research on segmentation, position and market structure and the development and application of latent class models. During his time at Amherst, nearly 30 of his authored and co-authored research articles were published in high-profile academic journals, and two computer software programs he authored were also published. Seven years after becoming an assistant professor, he returned to Baruch College, this time as a full professor and the holder of an endowed position as a distinguished professor of marketing.

As a relatively young professor, Dillon understood that holding an endowed position gave him serious scholarly credibility. Years later, Dillon sees how the school, as an employer, benefits from having the potential to offer endowed chairs. “Endowed positions are critical to a business school if it hopes to attract the most accomplished senior faculty,” he says. “We can only do that if we can offer market-driven compensation packages and faculty research budgets that endowed professorships make possible. Endowments also serve to bestow prestige to the holder, the school and the university in general.”

Dillon’s next career move was as the holder of another esteemed endowment at the University of South Carolina’s College of Business Administration, where he stayed for seven years as educator, researcher and administrator — taking on the added role of associate dean of academic affairs. While serving on a search committee to fill a South Carolina faculty position, he learned about an endowed faculty opportunity at SMU Cox. Dillon’s strong academic record, a growing number of published research works and the fact that he was already an endowed professor made him a competitive candidate.

Dallas and Cox

Dallas appealed to Dillon’s, and his wife Heidi’s, inherent city sensibilities. “It was love at first visit. When we drove down Lovers Lane and saw the Inwood Theatre, it struck a chord. I’ve always been a movie-buff and in my down time, you’ll find me at the movies. The Inwood reminded me of the theater in the neighborhood where I grew up. It looked like a theater that would show independent ‘artsy’ films, something we sorely missed in South Carolina.” Cox’s offer of an endowed position sealed the deal. “I would not have considered the position if it had not been endowed. I had already held two endowed positions elsewhere. Of course, after visiting Dallas and the SMU campus I would have been tempted, but the Herman W. Lay Professor of Marketing endowment was part of the package, so I didn’t have to make the trade-off.”

Two years after arriving at the Cox School, Dillon accepted the administrative role of senior associate dean for academic affairs. Rather than slowing down on his teaching load or research, he broadened his research into dynamic structural equation models, brand equity management and customer engagement. Many of his research interests have grown out of contacts he’s made with marketing professionals and real-world problems he’s encountered, like a data tracking project for a corporation in Latin America. It led him to research that addressed the disconnect between what customers say they want versus their actual behavior. His work earned him the American Marketing Association’s highly regarded Paul Green Award, which honors published works that make the greatest impact on the marketing profession. Dillon’s professional marketing contacts also led him into a consulting firm partnership, wherein he was able to develop new research ideas and put research theory into practice. Although he sold the company a few years ago, he’s no less busy than he’s ever been — continuing his research; teaching marketing management, fundamentals and customer value analytics; and oh yes, dealing with the dilemmas that typically face senior administrators.

Part of Dillon’s responsibility as senior associate dean of academic affairs is to ensure that SMU Cox maintains a world-class faculty and in turn, high standards of academic rigor. As a professor for whom an endowed position was an important factor in his decision to come to Cox, he’s grateful for the school’s nearly 20 endowed faculty positions and acutely aware of the growing importance of endowments at other business schools. “In the competitive world we live in today, both private and public schools have different levels of endowments. Historically, endowments came down for only very senior people at private schools. Now, many endowments or fellowships are often given to junior people in order to keep them. It’s a highly competitive labor market.”

Those kinds of issues, coupled with his own research and teaching interests, drive Bill Dillon — even after decades in academia — to squeeze every possible hour out of a work week. “It’s a great thing when your vocation becomes your avocation,” he says. “The things you do for your job, they are actually a part of what you would call your mission in life, your hobby, a confluence of things so that you find work isn’t really work at all.” All those years ago when he was booking early classes at Baruch and working nights and weekends at Kress, Bill Dillon was learning lessons that ultimately shaped his career and his life.