The Academic Formerly Known as Douglas J Guthrie

By Richard Willing
Published: Fall 2010

The young man on the phone said he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley studying modern Chinese management techniques and China’s march toward globalization. Could he pedal his bike over to the manager’s office in Shanghai or out to the foreman’s shed at the mine near Beijing and conduct a brief interview?

The listener, hearing the perfect Mandarin tones, assumed that this grad student was a local guy whose overseas study was underwritten by the government or some research institute. “Sure,” he answered.

But when the student turned out to be a bike-riding, Mandarin-speaking American, the reaction switched to “Hey, what’s this?” That graduate student was Doug Guthrie. And now, years later, he elicited the same reaction from faculty, staff and students when he took over as dean of The George Washington University School of Business last August.

Guthrie’s only 41, but already he has assembled an academic career that has moved at warp speed across several arcs of study. He has researched and written about corporate philanthropic strategies and maternity leave policies, and about corporate responsibility, ethics and leadership. His 1999 book Dragon in a Three Piece Suit drilled down to the social and cultural influences shaping China’s dramatic economic transition. When he wrote China and Globalization, published in 2009, Guthrie used lively anecdotes, in-country research and a decidedly non-academic writing style to demystify that topic for the popular reader.

“I wanted to produce something that people could read,” Guthrie said. “We’re just not trained that way in academia.”

He’s a master teacher who routinely packed classrooms and lecture halls at New York University, where he held dual appointments in the Department of Sociology and the Stern School of Business before GWSB hired him away.

And he’s a great communicator who, according to search committee member Gilbert C. Yancey, “knocked the cover off the ball” in describing his vision for the School of Business.

In hour-long meetings with faculty, staff, students and alumni, Guthrie left people feeling “not only do I have to follow this guy if he becomes dean, but I want to follow him,” said Yancey, executive director of The F. David Fowler Career Center. “He is great at developing buy-in, and that’s the key. He had intellectual and academic qualifications spilling out all over the place, but developing followership is where Doug really stood out.”

Guthrie’s was one of three names forwarded by the 14-member search committee to President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman. Still, Guthrie’s relative youth and lack of experience as an administrator caused some committee members to view him as a “gutsy choice,” said Professor of Accountancy Sok-Hyon Kang, who sat on the search committee.

Guthrie, with characteristic self-confidence, doesn’t see things that way.

“I’m walking into an amazing situation, and I appreciate so much the great work the School has done under [former Dean] Susan M. Phillips,” Guthrie said. “A lot of the ducks are in order, there’s been so much new building and the School’s in good financial shape. They’re very much ready for someone to come in and spin a vision for them and to be a part of that. It’s an interesting point in time to be able to do something a little unconventional.”

Guthrie was raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh, where his father was a chemist for Alcoa. No offense, but what he calls the “status hierarchy” of teenage life in the suburbs—“the ‘Friday Night Lights,’ the cheerleaders, etc.”—left him with a permanent case of, as Guthrie puts it, “post-traumatic suburban stress disorder.” Guthrie and his partner, Mira Edmonds, who have a 2-year-old daughter, Paloma Lucinda Edmonds, and are expecting a second child, live in Washington.

An early enthusiasm for bike riding has waned, influenced, perhaps, by all those research trips around China pedaling a locally produced, single-gear model. For now, Guthrie has transferred his affection to skiing and distance running. And the dean plans to have monthly runs with GWSB students.

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Guthrie was drawn to economics and political science. But China, still shaking off the effects of the Cultural Revolution and taking furtive first steps away from the Communist Party-directed command economy, also caught his attention. He majored in East Asian Languages and Civilizations with a specialization in Chinese Literature.

“The more I thought about a billion people there, and the possibilities of what could happen, it was clear China would have to be an interesting player on the world stage,’’ he recalled.

So, wanting to “study something I would never have a chance to learn on my own,” Guthrie took up Mandarin. His zeal caused him to take a year off and move to Taipei, to learn the language in an environment where English would seldom be spoken. He keeps his language chops up by traveling often to China, by seeking out Chinese graduate students for conversation and by reading thousand-year-old T’ang Dynasty poetry in the original.

Still, it was as a sociologist that he joined NYU in 1998, shortly after finishing his doctoral thesis at Cal-Berkley. Craig Calhoun, the department chair then and still a faculty member, recalled receiving a strong pitch on Guthrie’s behalf from a mutual acquaintance.

“He was passionate and innovative and creative and every bit as advertised,” Calhoun said. “He was one of the first people I hired at NYU and is still one of the best.”

Guthrie was also a bit of a mold breaker. Early in his publishing career, he switched his academic byline and credit line from the standard first-name, middle-initial, last-name format to simply “Doug Guthrie.”

“I thought the whole reason for full names was probably just to rack up more citations in academic journals, and I found that a little ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve always been Doug Guthrie to everybody.”

Everybody, that is, except the colleague who, during Guthrie’s tenure process, teasingly referred to him as “the academic formerly known as Douglas J. Guthrie.”

At NYU, China came on Guthrie’s screen very quickly. Assigned in the late 1990s to teach a core undergraduate course on Chinese civilization, he noticed two things right away:,first, the course attracted a standing-room-only registration of about 400 students and, second, about half of them were business majors.

Before long, Guthrie was also teaching at NYU’s Stern School of Business, using a sociological perspective to frame China’s transition from a command to a quasi-market economy. He examined the changes that transition was forcing on urban and rural work units, labor agreements, Communist Party influence and wage-and-benefit guarantees that had been in place for 50 years.

Guthrie openly disagrees with those who argue that the institutions of a democratic society—such as free elections, labor-friendly laws and protections for private property—must be in place before a centrally directed economy can transition to the market phase.

“Markets are political and social and full of embedded cultural influences,” he said. “You can’t understand China’s transition to a market economy without taking them into account.”

For business students raised on the Western capitalist model, that came as a bit of a jolt.

“You teach that, and you can just see these students who are steeped in the efficient market theory saying ‘What? Huh? Where’s this guy going?’ ” Guthrie said.

Guthrie’s China and Globalization is rich with examples. He cites Dun & Bradstreet’s early difficulties selling market information in a nation where whatever economic information there was cost nothing, but it was assumed to be from the government. And Guthrie tells the story of a worker who persuaded him to accept an expensive night on the town, then traded that favor for English lessons from Guthrie to a bureaucrat, who in turn gave the worker’s mother preference in hospital care. Understanding a society built on such arrangements is critical to understanding why what Guthrie called “gradualism” is the preferred method for Chinese economic growth.

Guthrie understands that his views are certain to provoke debate, especially with China scholars who feel gradualists like Guthrie underestimate the continuing influence of the Chinese government and its military on supposedly private companies. But that debate does not defeat Guthrie’s larger point—the need to bring disciplines beyond economics into modern business schools.

For business schools, the new dean said, “this is sociology’s moment.”

That point resonated with GW’s president, provost and search committee. They found in Guthrie significant expertise in international business, governance and ethics—the embodiment of paths GWSB has been pursuing as it plots its ascent to the top tier of U.S. business schools.

For his part, Guthrie was particularly impressed that GWSB mandates ethics study for MBAs.

Other schools, he notes, are “still wringing hands over it, whether it might handicap students, expose them later to liability, all sorts of things. At GWU it was just ‘boom, we’re doing it.’”

As dean, Guthrie has some specific ideas for moving GWSB forward. He thinks the undergraduate curriculum is quite good, but it may benefit from some tweaking to broaden BBA’s exposure to international trends.

And he has identified ongoing executive training as an area in which the School of Business can grow both its revenues and reputation. “We need a good custom executive MBA shop,” he said.

Rather than competing head-on with top-ranked schools with firmly established names, Guthrie said he’d attempt to find “less crowded space,” such as a program in leadership for advertising, entertainment and publishing executives. He believes his role as executive academic director for the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, which maintains such a program in Europe, gives him a leg up. An executive MBA in international development is also a possibility.

A business school’s ranking is “about 40 percent what recruiters think,” Guthrie said. “And outstanding, custom executive education and executive MBA programs change recruiters’ perspectives.”

Guthrie acknowledged that being dean requires that he spend at least 50 percent of his time on development. But he believes his background in a hot and ongoing issue—China—will open up possibilities for public speaking, op-ed writing and media appearances that, in turn, will attract attention and help brand GWSB as a center of international business education.

“This is Washington. We should have something to say and plenty of opportunity to say it,” Guthrie said. “I plan on doing a lot of speaking, with the advantage of being able to speak about something people want to hear about and something I know about.”

Will he miss research and teaching? Longtime colleague and friend Calhoun suspects so. “But the part of administration that involves communications and analysis and figuring out intellectual issues will allow him to use that part of his brain,” Calhoun noted.

One thing is certain, Calhoun added, “GWU will be a more interesting and distinctive place” with Guthrie in the dean’s office at the School of Business.

Guthrie himself said he’s poised for the challenge.

“Because of our location, we’re at the intersection of business, government and society,” he said. “If we do it right, there’s no reason we can’t be even bigger players.” GW