Chris Shook, the new dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Montana, was sleeping in a monastery in Spain last fall at the age of 53, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Shook was walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage popular among people worldwide as a retreat for spiritual growth. He was on sabbatical from his previous job as a professor of business management at Auburn University, but he knew he didn’t want to commit to more years there. Somewhere along that long walk, he decided that a career in administration was his true calling.
“Going into administration is the way to make the biggest difference in people’s lives,” he said. “I could write more articles or teach more classes, but that has a pretty limited impact.”
Meanwhile, longtime dean Larry Gianchetta retired from UM last June after 41 years at UM. So, Shook got a call from a professional headhunter because his resume matched what UM was looking for. He had served as the chair of Auburn’s Department of Management and been the director of the school’s Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship, among other accolades.
“And so here I am,” Shook said. “I just had to convince my wife and daughters.”
For him, the main challenge is increasing the school’s revenue – and that means attracting more out-of-state students and hitting up potential donors.
He said his job is going to be much easier because the school has such a great reputation and good academics that make it attractive to potential students and alumni.
“Our school does some really great things, but nobody really knows about it,” he said. “It’s really frustrating. We’re trying to get our message out there."
For instance, he was talking to alumni at the governor’s barbecue earlier this year and was surprised at how little people know about the School of Business Administration. The school is ranked No. 1 in the conference for business schools and has the highest first-time pass rate for its CPA exam in the Northwest. He said people don’t know that 80 percent of the school’s students have internships before they graduate, and 82 percent have jobs or are admitted to graduate school within 90 days of graduating.
“We have a really strong foundation of people,” he said. “The faculty and staff are phenomenal.”
Shook acknowledged that although the school’s enrollment had stayed steady since 2012, the SoBA has “financial challenges” because it has to suffer budget cuts due to precipitous campus-wide enrollment declines.
“Even though our enrollment stayed the same since fiscal year '12, we kept getting our share of the cuts,” he said. “That’s just how they do it. So it’s a challenge. And the things we have to do to stay accredited are expensive. We have to offer services that other people don’t.”
Shook said that one of his strengths is not being afraid to talk about how great he thinks the school is or asking donors for money. He joked that he’s been called “shameless.”
“The greatest thing that I’ve found is that the alumni love the school and appreciate what the school did for them and they want to help,” he said. “But a lot of them have not been asked before. Philanthropy has not been a big emphasis in Montana or at the university historically as it has been at other schools.”
Shook said that the humble culture here may play a part in why students across the country don’t know much about UM’s successes.
“There is one big difference between Colorado, where I grew up, and Montana that I’ve noticed,” he said. “In Montana nobody wants to brag. It’s like this ethos of ‘we are who we are and you should know,’ but that won’t work anymore. High school students need to know that we are the best school in Montana and why. We’re doing a disservice to them when we don’t tell them. I’m not from here so I feel at ease to just brag.
"But it’s not bragging if it’s true. If you’re ranked No. 1 in the state, why would you not say that?”
Shook said that meeting with donors is a huge part of his job right now.
“I’m a little bit more of an external dean than I had anticipated because our financial situation is not great,” he said. “I can sleep on planes now. I never used to be able to sleep on planes. And it’s not like we’re forcing anyone to do anything. They all want to help. You just tell them what’s going on here.”
He said he believes Tom Crady, UM’s new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, is the right man for the job.
Shook – easily recognizable because of his colorful, unique eyeglasses – has sort of shaken things up with his presence on campus with his innovative ideas, his propensity to speak his mind.
One of his first moves was to institute a “Dean for a Day” contest in which a student got to trade places with him and sit in on a faculty meeting and a donor meeting. Meanwhile, he attended all the student’s classes. He got the idea after meeting with every member of the staff and faculty, when internship coordinator Kathleen Tarkalson suggested it.
“It was really fun,” he said. “What I wanted to do was drive traffic to the web page. What we’re trying to do is get the information out in a more timely manner. So we had finalists do videos and Eduardo Hidalgo won. So I went to the frat house for lunch, and he did a great job. He even asked for money at the donor lunch, so he got the full range of experiences.”
Looking forward, Shook said he’s excited about the opportunities facing the school. He believes that he can help the SoBA attract both more in-state and out-of-state students.
“When I visited campus, the sense of excitement for SoBA’s future was palpable, and I am looking forward to strengthening and building on the foundation by working with other units on campus, the local, state and national business communities, and alumni and friends,” he said.