Dean Rachel Croson, Economic & Academic Powerhouse
Q & A Interview
Dr. Rachel Croson
Dean of the College of Business
Dr. Croson, tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angeles, and attended Venice High School by Venice Beach. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. I have one younger brother who lives in Monterey, CA.
Who were your biggest influences as a child?
Like all our readers, I had many infuencers. My mother had a Masters’ degree in Social Work, and taught me empathy and strong communication skills. My father had an MBA, and taught me about business. I had some incredible high school teachers who encouraged me academically.
But my paternal grandmother (Grandma Rae) had the biggest influence on me. I am named after her, so we always had a special bond. She had a difficult life, but she always seemed to be happy; happy to see us, happy to share a meal, happy to read or play or work or do whatever needed to be done. She brought joy wherever she went, and as a result she was joyous to be around. She became my role model not necessarily for what I should do, but for how I should do it. It is because of her that I strive to have fun every day, regardless of how unpleasant my day’s tasks might be.
Tell us about your educational journey.
I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, with a double major in Economics and Philosophy. I loved being in college; the intellectual exchange of ideas, the academic community and the interactions with diverse individuals was tremendously exciting. As a freshman, I changed my career aspiration from politician to university professor.
I had exposure to truly impressive faculty who encouraged and guided me in achieving this goal. Dr. Beth Allen and Dr. Claudia Goldin are two of the most famous female economists in the world, and they both encouraged me to pursue my PhD (only about 13% of full professors in economics are women, and the number was even lower back then). Dr. Jonathan Baron taught psychology, and hired me as a research assistant on an NSF grant he was working on to expose me to research. On that grant, I worked for Dr. Colin Camerer who exposed me to my eventual field of specialization; experimental economics.
I entered Harvard’s PhD program in Economics with a very strong sense of what I wanted to study, and I found open-mined and supportive faculty there. Dr. Jerry Green was my advisor, and stuck with me even when he was named Harvard’s Provost (COO). Dr. Eric Maskin served on my committee and was patient with me, suffering through many drafts of the dissertation. I had the opportunity to spend a summer at the University of Arizona with Dr. Vernon Smith and Dr. Mark Isaac, who gave me even more exposure to experimental economics. After I graduated and started my first academic job at Wharton, I was a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh with Dr. Alvin Roth, who taught me both about experimental economics as a field, and how to integrate what I was doing with the rest of economics in order to make a broader impact.
I also benefited in graduate school from exposure to strengths in other departments. I took classes in philosophy with Dr. Robert Nozick and Dr. Amartya Sen in the philosophy department. I even got to serve as Dr. Nozick’s teaching assistant for a class on Rationality. I worked with faculty in the Department of Government to design experiments for their courses. I was a Research Assistant for Dr. Richard Zeckhauser in the Kennedy School of Government, and ended up coauthoring a paper with Dr. Robert Mnookin at the Harvard Law School. Graduate school was an exciting and wondrous time.
You are a renaissance woman. Double major in economics and philosophy from University of Pennsylvania. Why that combination?
I loved my philosophy classes, especially classes in the philosophy of science, from an intellectual perspective. But I also wanted to use my time and energy to make the world a better place. Economics provided a lens through which I could do that.
Why was business a passion?
I found business later in life, after my PhD. My research and interests were very interdisciplinary; the field of experimental economics merges psychology and economics, with a bit of sociology, philosophy and other areas thrown in. When I went on the job market (now over 20 years ago), I found skepticism from traditional economics departments and open arms in policy and business schools. After joining a business school, I discovered a group of like-minded people who were problem-driven and used multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies to solve the problem they were facing. I think this is business’ greatest strength, both on the academic and practitioner side.
You served for 13 years at the renown Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Operations and Information Management. Tell us about your experiences there.
I had a wonderful time at Wharton! My department was very interdisciplinary, including researchers in decision-making, information systems, and operations management. In addition, there was lots of collaboration between different departments; we had a Decision Processes seminar series which attracted faculty from my department, Management, and Marketing and a second seminar series in Applied Economics which also attracted researchers from across the school. I also enjoyed interacting with researchers from other parts of the University, including the Economics department (I attended their seminar series regularly), the Psychology department (I was on their graduate group and helped advise their PhD students), and the Law School (I developed some wonderful coauthors there).
I taught Negotiation to MBA students (and sometimes undergraduates and PhDs), which was a similarly interdisciplinary course. It was taught by faculty in my department, in Management and in Legal Studies. We would meet each semester to trade syllabi, share readings that we recommended, and learn best-practices from each other. Negotiation was also taught by a colleague of mine in the Law School, and we got a chance to have our business students interact with the law students.
Did you encounter any gender bias during your tenure?
If so, how did you deal with it?
Probably one of the funniest things that happened involved the fact that my husband (Dr. David Croson) was also a faculty member in the same department. One day a student wandered into my office, and looked confusedly at me, at the nameplate on my door, and then back at me. Suddenly, a light dawned on her face. “I’m looking for Professor Croson” she said, “you must be his secretary.”
I replied, “No, I am Professor Croson, how can I help you?” She looked extremely confused, and said “I just came from Professor Croson’s class, and I’m pretty sure it’s a guy.” I then pointed her down the hall to his office.
At the time, there were only three female faculty in our department of about 40. We would often have lunch together and talk about our experiences, but also about our research. These informal lunches inspired one of my most important and impactful collaborations, with Dr. Karen Donohue (now at the University of Minnesota). She and I have six papers and two grants together, and our research kicked off a new field of behavioral operations management.
Generally I found the biggest difficulty in mastering the subtle cues which signaled status. For example, when I started teaching Wharton MBAs, I was younger than most of them and establishing my credibility in the classroom was a challenge. I switched from contacts to glasses (and never went back) and started wearing suits to class. At Wharton it became clear, faculty wore jackets and administrative assistants did not, so I started dressing more formally. Interestingly, when I visited at the University of Pittsburgh the norm was reversed; the administrative staff wore jackets and the faculty wore jeans. It took me about a month of people assuming that I was on the administrative staff before I caught on and started dressing more casually.
You have a PhD in Economics from Harvard. Tell us about some of your mentors and thought leaders in this field that inspire you to this day.
I mentioned some of my graduate faculty and mentors before. Four of those individuals (Dr. Maskin, Dr. Roth, Dr. Sen, and Dr. Smith) have gone on to win Nobel prizes in Economics.
In addition to the inspiration that they provided, I am constantly inspired by individuals who successfully and creatively combine insights from multiple fields to address important questions. These people are multilingual in important ways; they speak the language of multiple disciplines. There are certainly some examples of senior scholars who have done this; Dr. Elizabeth Hoffman is one of my mentors, and she has a PhD in History as well as in Economics. But I also find inspiration in my peers and in the next generation of scholars who are doing this successfully.
I love the work of Dr. Andrew Hanks (Ohio State), who uses behavioral economics principles to redesign school lunchrooms and encourage better eating habits in our nation’s youth. Dr. Scott Page (University of Michigan) uses economic reasoning to demonstrate the value of diversity and his book, The Difference, is fabulous. I also reading the “Why Not?” column written by Dr. Ian Ayres and Dr. Barry Nalebuff (both at Yale) applying economic reasoning to social problems.
You served as the Division Director for Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation managing a $100 million annual budget and eight programs. Can you share highlights from that experience?
The NSF is the leanest organization that I’ve ever been involved with. Every penny they receive is directed to funding scientific research. The program officers I supervised work harder than anyone I’ve seen, under extremely challenging conditions and with ever-increasing workloads, in service to the scientific community.
My role at the NSF was threefold. First, I sought to make each of the individual programs the strongest they could be. We revised program solicitations for three of my eight programs, reformulating them so that they served the needs of the scientific communities they were designed to serve and kept up with the latest scientific advancements.
Second, I spent a lot of time on developing funding opportunities for interdisciplinary research. For example, the Division Director of Computer Science and I wrote a new solicitation to fund collaborations between computer scientists and social scientists around cybersecurity (SaTC, Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace). I worked with other agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Justice, and the Department of Energy, to identify and fund cutting-edge, problem-based and impactful interdisciplinary research.
Third, I was responsible for crafting our external messages to Congress and the public about the importance of our science in advancing the national interest.
It was an intellectually stimulating job, and I gained a significant amount of respect for the people who take on public service roles.
You have nationally-acclaimed works including a popular presentation on women and negotiating. What are some of your tips for effectively negotiating for what you want in the workplace and in life.
Successful negotiation is all about win-win (or what negotiation scholars call integrative solutions). To find win-win solutions, you need to move beyond the parties’ positions (what they say they want) to uncover their underlying interests (what they really want to achieve). This is not easy to do, but if done successfully it can be enormously impactful.
I have two general pieces of negotiation advice. The first is to make promises, not threats. A threat would be “if you can’t match the salary, I’m going to take that other job offer.” A promise would be “if you can match that salary, I will sign a new agreement today.” Promises are framed positively rather than negatively, so they are easier for your negotiating partner to agree to. And they leave you strategic flexibility; if they can’t match the salary you can still sign tomorrow.
The second is to be honest. One should not explicitly lie in negotiations (it invites a lawsuit for fraud). But one should also avoid deception, which may not be fraudulent but is nonetheless unethical. The truth surfaces eventually, and any advantage you may get from deception in the short term is far outweighed by the costs of damage to your reputation in the long term.
What do you owe your tremendous success to?
I don’t know that I would call it “tremendous.”
I am smart and have worked hard, but so have many other people who have not been successful. I think there is a huge element of luck in anyone’s success. I primarily owe my success to being in the right place at the right time, and being brave enough to step forward, take risks, and try new things.
What do you think needs to happen to get more women appointed as deans of business schools in this country?
AACSB, the organization which accredits business schools, reports that fewer than 25% of Business School deans worldwide are female (as of 2015).
If that number is to increase, we need to get more women into the business school professorate, and then into leadership roles. One of my initiatives has been mentoring of female junior faculty, specifically in Economics but also in other fields, to ensure that we have a pipeline of qualified female faculty.
I have also been involved at the UT System level in developing and delivering workshops for emerging female leaders in all areas of academia. These kinds of programs, where senior women identify, encourage and empower junior women, will be pivotal to ensuring successful representation in executive positions in the future.
Are there unique attributes that women bring to the workplace?
There are unique attributes that everyone brings to the workplace, male or female. Women tend to be better communicators, and more concerned about coalition-building and inclusion, and those are valuable in leadership positions. That said, the variation between women is often larger than the differences between men and women.
You wrote an outstanding piece about the future of business. Can you share the major takeaway points of that article? We will include a link to the full piece for our readers.
At UT Arlington’s College of Business, we’re thinking about the future of business; what the business world will look like in 20 or 30 years. Our faculty do research about that world, so that when it comes we will know how to handle it. We teach our students about that world, so that when they graduate they have some skills that can help your organization today, but they also know the challenges that are emerging and can help your organizations to meet those challenges. And we seek to be the place that convenes the conversation about the future of business; we get input from industry leaders and futurists to think about what might be coming down the pike.
The blog includes many examples of where we think the future is going. For example, demographic change in the US means that students need to understanding managing diversity in organizations and multicultural marketing (we teach classes in both those areas). Additive manufacturing (3D printing) means that we need to develop new inventory policies; Home Depot doesn’t need to keep boxes of screws on the shelf if they can print one on demand. And the shift from international business to multinational business requires a different skill-set, knowing how to mediate between two cultures different than each other and different than your own.
What do you see as the future of higher education?
We are entering an era where lifelong learning is becoming more and more important. We are all living longer and working longer, and are likely to have second and even third careers.
I see universities continuing to offer traditional undergraduate degrees, but also designing more targeted, smaller, and shorter educational experiences for individuals seeking to switch careers later in their lives.
How do you define success?
Being happy every day, and making others around you happy too.
Is there a particular professor that really made a huge impact in your life?
I mentioned Dr. Claudia Goldin earlier. Dr. Goldin taught my very first economics class when I was a freshman, and she was so energetic and so excited about the subject matter and so supportive, that she inspired me to become an economics major. When I transitioned from my undergrad at Penn to my PhD at Harvard, she accepted a position at Harvard that very same year, thus we were together through my four years of graduate school as well. She has been an inspiration for me.
While not exactly a professor, Dr. Catherine Eckel, now at Texas A&M University, has been a mentor, a sponsor and a collaborator. I have learned so much from watching her work, especially in her ability to create a supportive and inclusive environment that inspires everyone around her to put in their very best effort.
What about a student?
When I was in graduate school I worked with an undergraduate student, Tino Cuellar (Mariano-Florentino Cuellar). He was a truly stellar student who has gone on to accomplish great things. He later earned a JD from Yale and a PhD in Political Science from Stanford, and is now serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court of California. He has a truly inspiring story.
If you had not gone into education, what other field might you have pursued?
As I mentioned, I originally wanted to be a politician, so that probably would have been my next-choice career.
What are the characteristics you believe are essential in order to be an effective leader?
Being a good listener and a strong communicator. Effective leaders listen to various points of view and integrate them into a unified vision that meets everyone’s needs, and then they communicate that vision both to the individuals who helped to form it and to the external community.
What is your favorite quote?
“Equality is not in regarding different things similarly, equality is in regarding different things differently.” – Tom Robbins
Please fill in the blank. In a perfect world………….
We would all wake up each morning inspired and enthusiastic about our work, our family life, and our interactions with each other.
Dr. Croson, thank you for your time today.
Contact info for
Dr. Rachel Croson
Dean, College of Business
University of Texas, Arlington
701 S. West Street, Room 334
Arlington, TX 76019