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Connection Maker

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  • | 6:00 p.m. April 13, 2007
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Connection Maker

business education by Janet Leiser | Senior Editor

One dean says the University of South Florida, with its 40,000 students, is a rising star, as is its business school. It's time to shine the light.

Robert Forsythe hears a common complaint not likely to surprise employers who regularly hire entry-level professionals: Many fresh college graduates, including those from the University of South Florida, stink when it comes to writing and communicating.

"They all know the letter 'u' is a word," Forsythe says, laughingly referring to the abbreviated Internet language used in e-mails and instant messages.

Not that Forsythe, the new dean at USF's College of Business Administration, takes the problem lightly.

"I hear many good things about their work ethic, so on," he says. "But the No. 1 concern is our graduates cannot write. Second, they can't present or if they present, they can't defend their arguments."

So what is Forsythe, who was hired last July, doing about this national problem on a local basis?

USF has instituted what it calls the "communication across the curriculum program" to teach students, who he says often don't think they're poor communicators, necessary skills.

Instead of a single communications class for business majors, which was usually taken in the last semester prior to graduation, the school now takes an integrative approach. It includes communications assignments in most business classes, from marketing to statistics. Students are not only graded for content, but also for grammar and structure.

"At the end of the day, you want your graduates to be sought after by employers," he says. "That's what tells you you're being successful ... I think this college has the potential to be one of the leading business schools in the country, and we're going to start moving in that direction."

Getting caught

In late 2005, Forsythe said thanks, but no thanks when USF called, looking for a new dean for its business college, the largest in the state and the sixth largest in the country.

"I told them I've heard of USF, but I've never heard of the business school," says Forsythe, 57. "I've been in Iowa for 25 years. I'm happy here, and I'm not going to be following up on this."

Then he received another call from Patricia Burns, USF's dean of nursing. Burns, who chaired the committee that was searching for a new business college dean, asked Forsythe to visit during Tampa's 2006 Outback Bowl. Just be coincidence, Iowa was playing the University of Florida.

"She netted me as I tell her," Forsythe says. "It was serendipity. If I had gone to San Antonio for the bowl game I wouldn't be here."

Forsythe was impressed by USF President Judy Genshaft and her faculty, as well as members of the Tampa Bay business community.

After talking to business leaders, he says, "I became convinced this area is just ripe for a leading business school and the business community would support it if we worked with them."

And, yes, Florida's mild winter days were a plus.

"I also saw that this university was clearly on the rise," he adds. "It had become a research university. Its senior leadership team here impressed the heck out of me. They are absolutely phenomenal. And then the college itself had a lot of good things going for it."

There was one glaring deficiency, at least in Forsythe's opinion, at the 7,500-student business college. The school didn't market itself, he says. After joining USF July 1, he hired a director of external communications, Lorie Briggs.

"At the University of Iowa, on the marketing side, we had eight fulltime staff members," he says. "I came here and there was none."

Of the school's 7,500 students, about 6,200 business students attend classes in Tampa, while the others take courses in Sarasota and Lakeland.

Farm to beach

Forsythe's mid-western roots show when he talks of the business college's lack of presence in the community.

"Here it's like they hand you a bushel basket and tell you if you see a light shining out there, cover it up," says Forsythe. "I'm just trying to burn those bushel baskets."

Prior to joining USF, Forsythe was senior associate dean at the University of Iowa's Henry B. Tippie College of Business, which was consistently named one of the top 30 public business schools in the nation.

He is known nationally for his work using financial markets to forecast elections and other events. In 1988, he and other Iowa business professors co-founded the Iowa Electronic Market, a program for trading futures contracts on world events.

Traders, including students, place bets, between $5 and $500, by buying or selling contracts based on their predictions for presidential elections, a company's quarterly earnings, Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, stock price movements, influenza outbreaks or a movie's box office receipts.

The Internet-based teaching and researching tool is used by about 100 other colleges, in addition to the University of Iowa, such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern, to teach students' economic literacy.

At USF, Forsythe took over from Robert Anderson, who retired after more than 20 years as dean and associate dean.

Anderson did a fine job, Forsythe says. It's just time to raise the business school's profile.

"We've been very insular and we're trying to make a much better connection with the business community than we have for awhile," Forsythe says from his second-floor corner office of the business college's newest building that opened in March 2005.

Companies in the Tampa Bay area shouldn't be surprised to get a call from Forsythe or Briggs, his marketing director.

Forsythe is trying to follow USF President/CEO Judy Genshaft's example. "She's out there on a daily basis," he says of Genshaft who's known for her heavy involvement in the community, including her position as chair of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Forsythe, who has a bachelor's degree in quantitative business analysis from Pennsylvania State University and master's degrees in economics and statistics and a doctorate in economics from Carnegie Mellon University, visits eight company leaders each week.

"I need these people from the business community to keep me grounded, to say that's a really great idea or it's not a good idea," he says.

USF Provost Renu Khator calls Forsythe "a dynamic and creative individual who recognizes the driving force business plays in our society."

As he dashes down the stairs, out of his office building, for a meeting with an executive at one of the Tampa Bay area's largest companies, he says: "The whole world is an opportunity right now. We're working real hard to get word out about the place and let everybody know we're here."


Who. Robert Forsythe

Title. Dean of the College of Business Administration, University of South Florida

Key. Bring the business community and business college closer together.

'It's a Big Place'

The University of South Florida is launching a "living-learning program" in the fall for incoming business students in an effort to keep them from being lost amid the shuffle of one of the largest universities in the nation.

Only 32 of USF's 40,000 students will be chosen to live at Maple Hall in an interactive, supportive environment, beginning with the fall semester.

But College of Business Administration Dean Robert Forsythe says it's a start, and hopefully the program will expand next year after the glitches are worked out.

Forsythe says he realized how badly the program was needed after one of the school's top incoming freshmen recently flunked all her classes in her first semester.

"Had she been living in one of these learning communities, I like to think at least someone would have noticed that she had fallen by the wayside and we could have been proactive about it as opposed to waiting until the semester is gone," he says.

Students in the program will be enrolled in similar first-year courses, allowing them to become part of a community with similar schedules and classes. Others, who have already completed their first-year business courses, will be their advisers.

"One of the things you can do once you have students living together is provide special programming," Forsythe says. "What it means to be a professional. What each major can offer in terms of future career. Business etiquette. Dressing for success. Some of the things you wouldn't do in a traditional classroom setting."

He expects students to build friendships and alliances that will last for years to come, as they build companies and careers.

- Janet Leiser


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