Embracing change

Dr. Isabelle Dostaler on St. John’s, leadership and her vision for Memorial’s business faculty


Dr. Isabelle Dostaler

Oct. 11

Since arriving in St. John’s in late August,  has been busy settling into her new role as dean of Memorial’s business faculty.

She was given a tour of the business building by students, greeted first-year students at Welcome Week and recently watched Enactus Memorial win second place at the Enactus World Cup in London, U.K. – an experience she calls “awesome.”

“It confirmed something that I already know – that this faculty is really good at training students and transmitting the right values to them.”

Dr. Dostaler joins the Faculty of Business Administration from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University where she was a professor of management and academic director of its Aviation Think Tank. She was also the school’s director of accreditation for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) – the highest indicator of quality that a business school can earn worldwide and which Memorial’s business faculty has held since 2002 – and has previously served as Concordia’s director of its Executive MBA and International Aviation MBA programs.

She recently sat down to answer some questions about her experiences so far and why she wanted to join Memorial.

Why were you interested in the job as dean at Memorial’s business faculty?

You have to understand that this faculty at Memorial has a really strong brand in our industry of business schools – winning the Concordia Cup, for example. The institution always had a great reputation so that was appealing.

St. John’s in itself is an attractive place. Maybe this is something that if you’re from St. John’s, you’re not aware of but St. John’s [and] Newfoundland are Canada’s best kept secret. There’s a real buzz about the place. My house is like a bed and breakfast and people are lining up to come visit. I hear people complaining about the weather and telling me to brace for the winter but it fits with the scenery I think. The rain is nice with the ocean and the hills and all that. So it’s an attractive place. I was here at the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada (ASAC) conference in 2012 so when I learned that this job was available I really jumped on the opportunity and that’s it – here I am.

What challenges do you think the faculty faces?

I think that the faculty faces challenges that are similar to many others in Canada. We are not rich universities. We are publically funded and the fiscal situation is not easy. It’s a challenge. So how can we continue to develop high quality programs and high quality business education in a budgetary situation that is difficult? That pushes you to innovate.

Certainly raising money is going to be important [and] trying to find this right match between donors’ interests [and] also faculty interest. How can we excite the interest of the donor for a project or initiative that fits well with the talent of our faculty? It’s this funding situation that’s going to occupy a lot of my mind over the years to come.

What professional experiences have you had that you feel will be strengths in leading the business faculty?

I was program director of MBA programs that were very expensive because they were private programs – executive MBA, aviation MBA – and there was a challenge there in recruiting and managing those because they were profit centres. It made me very mindful of cost. I’m very frugal [and] cost conscious. And at the same time, I want to bring in revenue. So for example, we’re developing a new MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship so I trust that my experience as executive MBA director could help us in that.

I’ve gained good experience with donors as a member of the Aviation Think Tank at Concordia University. This is an initiative that I was there for from day one so I had good experience on how you manage donors, excite their interests and find this meeting point between what donors want to do and what the university can deliver.

Also, my work as accreditation director means that I understand business schools very well from various angles. And business schools, for me, is a topic of research. It’s interesting because as I am in my first days here doing this job, I’m also observing things that I have seen in my research and that I have taught about so I find it’s very interesting.

You are the first permanent female dean of Memorial’s business faculty (there have been an acting dean and interim dean in the past who have both been female) and many of the top leadership roles at the faculty are now filled by women. How do you feel about this?

You know what? I don’t want to feel anything about it. It’s a non-issue. I don’t want to sound as if I’m anti-feminist – quite the contrary. I’m actually very pro feminist and I’m almost taking a feminist stand by saying it should be a non-issue. [Gender] shouldn’t play a part at all – that and ethnic background. It’s great [to have women in leadership roles] but we need to go beyond that. Let’s hope that in the future everything is balanced everywhere. I think that by seeing this as a non-issue that we might reach the day where it’s totally balanced all the time and if it’s not, it’s due to chance more than to prejudice or whatever.

You are starting your term as dean at a time of much leadership change at the faculty. There is a new director of the master of employment relations (MER) program, a new associate dean (course-based masters) and a new acting associate dean (undergraduate programs). The Gardiner Centre has a new director and last year we embarked on new initiatives with the launch of the Centre for Social Enterprise and Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship. How do you plan to manage this period of change?

I don’t plan to manage it – I plan to embrace it. It’s wonderful to have new faces. There’s an important concept in business on which I have done a bit of research, this concept of ambidexterity. So an organization needs to be ambidextrous. This means that they are able to continue to build on past capabilities – we call this exploitation – and at the same time they are able to explore new avenues – we call this exploration. So it’s really good when you have a mix of both. There’s always something good in stuff that has been there for a long time and it’s great to be able to combine that with this new perspective or fresh perspective from people who are joining the organization. So I don’t see any challenge in relation to this – quite the contrary. I think it’s great.

What is your vision for the faculty?

That’s a tricky one. I have a vision for business schools in general. For example, we need to have an approach to research that is very balanced. It’s OK for some faculty members to contribute more to the more basic research or basic discovery and contribute to building theories and things. It’s also OK for some faculty members to do research that is very practical and can resonate right away in the classroom or could be easily explained to the general public. We need that mix of both.

With regards to how we teach our students, I think that not just business schools but universities in general will really have to rethink what they offer. Knowledge is a commodity. It’s amazing what young people can learn even if they don’t attend university but they are on Wikipedia all day long, you know? [Knowledge] is readily accessible to people so what can we offer? We need to make sure that we deliver an educational experience that really is meaningful, and that’s not just for business but for college education in general. I think that this business school, being one of the first in the country to introduce a co-op program, is advanced on that point. We turn out fantastic students in this school.

But other than that, a strategic plan or a vision or a mission is not something that should be developed in the hands of the leader on its own. I’ll talk to people and I will see where people think that our challenges are but more importantly, where are the opportunities and what are the opportunities that are exciting for us. So whatever vision that I will develop for this faculty, it’s going to be something that we will develop together. It’s going to be our vision, certainly not just my vision.

What have been your impressions of Memorial and the Faculty of Business Administration so far?

My impression is that Newfoundland and Labrador, Memorial and the Faculty of Business Administration have so much to offer. We really need to spread the word about the entrepreneurial drive in this province, the strength of Memorial as an institution and how much alumni identify with it, and how good this faculty is at conducting innovative research and preparing students to become leaders and community builders of tomorrow.

Susan White