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UB business school’s dean working hard for alma mater

Coming back to the school from which she graduated to lead it into the future has been Darlene Brannigan Smith’s greatest pleasure.

Darlene Brannigan Smith, dean of the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business

And changing the way education programs are structured to better fit students’ and employers’ needs in a down economy is the future that Smith says she is excited to be part of.

After three years as the dean of the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, Smith has tackled making the school a game player in a competitive environment that includes the Sellinger School of Business at Loyola University Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and The Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, as well as for-profit schools focused on certificate programs and work experience.

UB was recently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as providing one of the nation’s best undergraduate business programs and part-time MBA programs.

Watch video from our Newsmakers interview with Smith

“We know that the MBA marketplace is probably overall a mature-to-declining product line,” Smith told reporters and editors at The Daily Record this week. “It’s very saturated. So we have to think, as every organization does, how you can diversify your portfolio to better meet not just student needs, but also essentially what employers need.”

As she crosses the 25-year mark of being an educator and a dean, Smith, 55, is nowhere near sitting back and letting everyone else do the work in developing these programs and getting the school’s name out to the public.

The midtown Baltimore campus will grow in size and influence in upcoming years, with 3,226 undergraduate students focusing on business administration, management information systems, real estate and economic development, and other areas. The school’s 2,128 graduate business students follow one of four degree programs — a combined MBA program with Towson University, or a Master of Science degree in either accounting and business advisory services, business and finance, or taxation.

But the need to redefine education at the Merrick School of Business is also driven by other types of colleges and universities that are “on the fringe,” as Smith puts it. The for-profit colleges and universities — such as Strayer University, University of Phoenix and Walden University — have changed programs to be more skill-specific and online-based, and they pose increasing competition for traditional schools.

“The fringe drives change,” Smith said.

For-profit schools are becoming more innovative in the types of learning and experience that students need in a tough market. And lagging the wave of change is not where Smith said she wants the University of Baltimore to be.

“We traditional universities want to say that the for-profits are a different breed, they’re not doing the quality of job we’re doing,” Smith said. “I have concerns about what they’re delivering, but I have respect for their innovation. It’s pushing us to rethink what they’re doing.”

Many of the for-profit schools use online courses and design classes around technology and more physical, practical skills sets. Identifying and borrowing the best practices of for-profit schools is vital to staying ahead of the competition, Smith said.

UB already integrates online courses into its curriculum, with about 35 percent of undergraduate courses being offered online. Half of its graduate courses are online, she said.

The alumna advantage

One advantage to being dean at one’s alma mater is knowing what kinds of students gravitate toward the school, and what they’re looking for.

Smith started her time with UB in 1976 as a full-time undergraduate, the first member of her family to be college-educated.

“What makes me so passionate about my job is that I am an alum,” Smith said. “I think that I am the quintessential profile of University of Baltimore.”

Smith attended full time, something only about half of the fall 2010 student body did. Ninety percent of those students were Maryland residents and nearly 57 percent were female.

Of those students, most are older — average age is 26 — or transfer students.

“We’re not a party school,” she said. “It’s all about career advancement. So we don’t have that traditional culture.”

Smith first attended community college and worked her way to getting a full scholarship to UB.

“The faculty there believed in me, gave me the confidence I was lacking at the age of 20 or 21,” she said.

Smith went on to receive her MBA at UB in 1980, and then earned a doctorate at University of Maryland, College Park.

Her teaching career started at George Washington University in 1986, first as an instructor, before Smith became an assistant professor of marketing there from 1988 to 1994. Since then, Smith taught marketing at Loyola, and became academic director of executive and graduate business programs in 2001. Smith took the same position at the University of Baltimore in 2005, and was promoted to dean of the Merrick School of Business in July 2008.

A common degree

MBA degrees have become common because many students who graduated during the recession went back to school. The dearth of jobs has left those students still wondering how they’ll find a way to make money, and upcoming undergraduate and graduate students are looking ahead to the bleak job scene. Because of this backlog of jobless graduates, colleges need to provide needed skills quickly, Smith said.

“The job situation is certainly on the minds of students — they have to be prepared as much as they possibly can,” Smith said.

The challenge for the school is to give students the tools to get through unique business challenges, and prepared to deliver professionalism across different industries, she said.

To help, UB is increasing internships for students so they gain work experience early. While the school’s goal was a 20 percent increase by July 1, it actually doubled the number of students in internships, Smith said.

Last year, the school formalized its Merrick Internship program to better collaborate with businesses and students to supplement course learning.

The school is also re-examining prerequisites for courses and majors.

Many prerequisites can be contrived, Smith said. It’s not necessary for a student to take several of them just to take one course, she said.

“Maybe start with specializations,” Smith said. “Because the individuals are looking for nuggets. Then take those foundational courses to augment it. So you start at the end and work backwards.”

Smith said it won’t be easy to reinvent courses because the higher education industry is still focused on formal degree programs and getting the right students into particular classes and schools.

Keeping loans to a minimum also eases fears about mounting debt for students who may not even secure a job to pay off their education, Smith said. The school’s tuition is $7,500 per year for undergraduates and $11,500 for graduates.

$40M capital campaign

The school is looking to draw more than Maryland residents in the next five years. UB has launched a $40 million capital campaign, of which 93 percent has been attained, Smith said.

The university has until Dec. 31 to reach the goal. The Merrick School of Business has to make $8 million by that date, of which $7.3 million has been raised, she said.

Last year, the school announced it will build an 11-story, 325-bed apartment building for students at Maryland Avenue and West Biddle Street.

Construction on the project has started and is expected to be completed by next August, in time for the fall semester, Smith said.

“You’ll start seeing students from New York, New Jersey,” she said.

That tactic to build enrollment has worked at Stevenson University and Loyola, Smith said.

UB has also created a strategic plan for the next five years on how to transform students into socially responsible and professional business leaders, she said. The school pulled 150 students and teachers to be part of focus groups to identify its brand and how it needs improvement.

“We need to create a culture of innovation in business schools,” Smith said.

Integrating with business community

Meanwhile, the school is exploring how to integrate more with the Baltimore business community. In 2008, Merrick opened its Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center to help students, alumni and local businesses with new ventures. Student entrepreneurs are coached and mentored on entrepreneurial initiatives, while students looking for a traditional career path give technical assistance to new ventures through the center. Last year, the center created a space of cubicles, computers, conference rooms and a resource library for entrepreneurs.

The center has partnered with the Central Region Maryland Small Business Development Center to offer events for small-business owners.

“Intervening in small business is critical,” Smith said. “We have to be focusing on existing small businesses.”

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DARLENE BRANNIGAN SMITH

Age:

55

Family:

Married, two daughters, two grandchildren

Education:

Bachelor of Science, University of Baltimore; MBA, University of Baltimore; Ph.D., University of Maryland, College Park.

Work:

Assistant Professor of Marketing, George Washington University, 1988-1994; Assistant Professor of Marketing, Loyola College in Maryland, 1988-2005; Academic Director, Executive and Graduate Business Programs, Loyola College in Maryland, 2001-2005; Associate Dean of Graduate and Executive Programs, University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business, 2005-2007; Associate Dean, University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business, 2007-2008; Dean, University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business, 2008-present.

Board memberships:

Live Baltimore, Network 2000, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, FMS Solutions corporate board

Awards:

Leadership Maryland 2007; Greater Baltimore Committee Leadership 2009; They Daily Record’s Maryland Top 100 Women, 2009, 2011; Harvard University Institute for Management and Leadership 2010.