Leaving a Legacy: Dean Susan M. Phillips Looks Back

By Robert Preer
Published: Spring 2010

In the entire year of 1978, only one woman received a PhD in finance in the United States. In June, that same woman ends her tenure as dean of The George Washington University School of Business.

During her 12 years as dean, Susan M. Phillips oversaw construction of a $56-million home for the School of Business, balanced its long troubled budget, revamped the curriculum and recruited top faculty.

GWSB went from nowhere in the business school rankings to its solid position among top-tier schools. The Financial Times recently rated the School as No. 5 worldwide for its international programs.

Still, despite the far-reaching changes she brought to the School, Phillips, a professor of finance, seems amused by a suggestion that her accomplishments resulted from any special vision she had.

“I went to a leadership lecture once, and there was a lot of talk about vision—you know, people want to know ‘What’s your vision?’ ” Phillips said. “Well, Thomas Edison said ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’ Having a vision is not a big deal. Getting anything done—that’s the hard part.”

Phillips, 65, who leaves the dean’s office on June 30, has had a special way of getting things done at the GW School of Business. According to those who have worked with her for the past dozen years, she succeeded by building consensus, avoiding protracted controversies and preparing meticulously for the projects she undertook.

“She has a way of finding common ground,” said Mitch Blaser, chairman of the School’s Board of Advisors. “In a university setting that’s extremely important. You can spend years debating things while nothing happens. But if you find common ground, things happen very quickly.”

Donald Lehman, the University’s executive vice president for academic affairs, said Phillips “always looks to find the best in whatever you’re doing. She’s also extremely competent. She’s not a pushover.”

Pradeep Rau, a professor of marketing, has been on faculty for 20 years and now serves as senior associate dean under Phillips. “She’s very thorough,” he said. “She reads things 10 times over to make sure there are no problems when she is working on something.”

Despite a resume that includes positions at the highest levels of finance, government and academia, Phillips has an unpretentious manner that puts people at ease. As a child in a military family, she lived in many places, but her deepest roots are in the Florida Panhandle, where she went to high school, and Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, where she was a faculty member and administrator for many years. Her warm presence echoes the best of Southern and Midwestern hospitality.

“She has this terrific smile,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, GW’s former president who worked with Phillips for nine years. “It makes it hard to be argumentative with her.”

Phillips reflected on her tenure at GWSB, as well as her journey to the school, in an interview in her office in early February. A blizzard had closed the University and paralyzed the city, but Phillips turned up in her office as usual. A veteran of Midwest snowstorms, she drives a sport utility vehicle acquired for just such occasions, when four-wheel-drive is the only way to get to campus from her Arlington condo.

Her office is filled with memorabilia tracing a remarkable career. On what she calls her “Fed Wall” are official portraits of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, the members gathered around Alan Greenspan. She was on the board for six-and-a-half years, appointed by President George H.W. Bush. Her framed appointment papers with the presidential signature are on the wall. The straight-backed leather chair she used at the Fed sits across from her desk.

The office also has a “CFTC Wall” displaying items from her six years on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, four of which she served as chairman. Elsewhere are photographs from an East African safari and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, which she visited during a side trip while on Fed business in South America.

For most of her professional life, Phillips has been a trailblazer. She was only the third woman to serve as a governor on the Fed’s Board of Governors. At the CFTC, she was the first woman ever to head a federal financial regulatory agency.

She dismisses questions about her role as a pioneering female. “I guess I don’t think about it much,” she said. “It was never a barrier for me. It wasn’t an issue. I just plowed ahead.”

Phillips did her undergraduate work at Agnes Scott College, a small women’s school near Atlanta. Her first thought was to become a high school math teacher.

“My mother was an elementary school teacher, and in college I got my certification,” she said. “But in my student teaching assignment I found I didn’t like teaching high school. I didn’t like the discipline part of it.”

After graduating from college, Phillips worked for an insurance company in Boston. “It became clear to me that to continue in the corporate world, I needed additional education. So I went back to school,” she explained.

Phillips enrolled at Louisiana State University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. “It was really in graduate school that I found my passion for finance and economics,” she said.

After graduation, she joined the University of Iowa as a finance professor. Later, university officials asked her to serve in the administration.

She was associate vice president of finance at Iowa when President Ronald Reagan in 1981 tapped her for the Washington-based CFTC, the agency that oversees futures markets.

“Financial futures were just appearing on the horizon, and I had done research and writing about them. Futures then were primarily agricultural. If you’re in finance at the University of Iowa, you’re going to teach corn hedging,” she explained.

In 1987, she left the CFTC and returned to her job at Iowa but, four years later, she was called to Washington again, this time to serve on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

Those early days at the Fed were difficult. “There was still a big hangover from the savings and loan crisis. Banks had a lot of bad real estate loans on their balance sheets,” she said. To fight inflation, the Fed took the unpopular step of hiking interest rates.

“There was a lot of Fed bashing then,” she recalled.

As the ’90s progressed, the situation improved. “Inflation did come under control. Productivity started improving. There was a lot of healing,” she said.

In 1998, as her Fed term was ending, a search committee from GWSB approached Phillips about becoming dean. “My assessment of GW was that while the business school was good, it could be better. I saw it as a bit of a challenge,” she said.

She had not been on campus long before the school’s infrastructure became her priority. “We really didn’t have a focus, a home so to speak. I decided if I was going to improve the reputation of this place, we had to have better facilities.”

At that time, business school faculty members were spread out among eight buildings. There was no place to hold large functions. Students clustered in hallways to discuss group projects, and the career center was ensconced in a converted closet.

Phillips reorganized the Board of Advisors and established a fundraising committee to work on getting a new building. She reached out to alumni with special events and one-on-one meetings.

“She was single-minded,” recalled Margie Shepard, who was the chief development officer for the building campaign and is now assistant vice president for development at GW Law School. “She let the faculty know this was the priority above all others.”

Four years after it started, the campaign had raised the $19 million needed to start construction. In January 2006, Duquès Hall opened, giving the school a new identity and allowing a dramatic expansion of student offerings.

Phillips next turned her attention to the curriculum. Working with faculty, she streamlined the doctoral program and overhauled the MBA program. The School established new research centers and launched courses in ethics and international business.

She credits the faculty for much of the School’s success. “The faculty has shouldered an increasing responsibility for governance. There has been a major change in the willingness of faculty to step up and help make things better.”

During the end-of-year break in 2009, Phillips purchased a condominium in Fort Walton Beach, the northwest Florida community where she spent her teenage years. Her brother and his wife still live in the house in which Phillips grew up. Phillips will keep her Arlington condo. She plans to spend a good bit of time in the capital.

As a prominent former official, she expects to be called to testify before government panels on policy matters. She sits on the boards of directors of two large corporations, Kroger and State Farm. And Agnes Scott College has asked to serve as a trustee.

“Right now I feel like it’s hard to keep all of the balls in the air,” she said. “I’d like to spend more time with my family and continue with my board work and travel.”

Phillips sees a bright future for the school she leaves behind. “Twelve years is a long time,” she said. “I believe in fresh perspectives. My hope is that we’ve established a good base the next person can build on.” GW