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Michael Sesnowitz

Michael Sesnowitz

VCU business dean returns to the classroom.

Michael Sesnowitz picked up the telephone in his office.

“Sure. I’ll do anything I can to help out.” He has agreed to join VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart’s recruiting team, at least for a few hours.

Sesnowitz, dean of the VCU School of Business since 2000, would be meeting with a prospective basketball recruit who wants to pursue a business degree if he signs with VCU.

“I’ve done it over the years. I’m happy to meet with any prospective student, whether it’s a student athlete or not. VCU has a great story to tell,” he said.

Raising money, guiding curriculum, meeting with prospective students and telling VCU’s story is all in a day’s work for Sesnowitz — who’ll be stepping down as dean this year to return to the classroom as an economics professor.

“I’ll be 66 (in March). I’ve been dean nine years … it’s time,” he said.
   
For most, Sesnowitz’s move back to the classroom would be considered less a jolt than the move he made when he came to VCU. His previous assignment – business dean at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt., a community of 40,000 amid the state’s idyllic countryside.

But Sesnowitz, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., likes city life and he’s been happy at VCU.

“Virginia was appealing because it is business friendly. Richmond was appealing because it has a good business community, a business community which is very supportive of education,” he said. “By being able to work with that community, we can really enhance our academic programs.”

Looking back over his VCU experience, Sesnowitz says the biggest surprise – and greatest pleasure – is where he reports to work every day. That’s the new VCU School of Business, co-located with the VCU School of Engineering and completing its first-year shakedown cruise. It opened in January 2008.

When he arrived at VCU, Sesnowitz was told that that the university planned to renovate the old business school building – now Harris Hall – and put on an addition. There were no plans for a new building.

Then, six years ago, Sesnowitz made what at the time seemed like an audacious announcement to the business school faculty.

“I announced that we would build a new business school, and that we would be in it in five years. There was a lot of skepticism,” Sesnowitz said with a laugh. “But we were actually in it in a little less than five years. So, we stuck by that time schedule and beat it a little bit.”

Of course, what happened between Sesnowitz’s announcement and the actual construction of the new School of Business has become part of VCU lore, and a dramatic turning point in the university’s history.

A parking lot at Harrison Street and Floyd Avenue had been earmarked as the construction site for a new School of Business. But then Steve Markel, head of the VCU School of Business Foundation, and William H. Goodwin Jr., head of the VCU School of Engineering Foundation, began talking to each other at a social event.

By the time they were through, an ambitious and innovative plan had been formulated to co-locate the School of Business and an addition to the School of Engineering on a site east of Belvidere Street. In the process, VCU would create a new residential campus, the Monroe Park Campus Addition.

“We thought it was a terrific opportunity,” Sesnowitz said. “Joining the business and engineering schools fit our goal of being nationally recognized as the leading technologically focused business school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The School of Business dean promptly set out -- along with a small army of alumni, friends and professional staff – to launch a fundraising campaign whose goal was $45 million. The goal was exceeded; $51.5 million was raised.

The new School of Business is loaded with technology and good design, but it also has an intangible element that might be called the softer side of business education.

“We wanted,” Sesnowitz said, “a building that really allowed us to create a sense of community.”

A large atrium and an adjoining café offer swaths of open space that encourage students from the schools of business and engineering to intermingle. The open spaces also provide faculty members tremendously increased opportunities to see their students and colleagues.

“We’re having conversations that could have never taken place in the old building, because people never ran into each other,” Sesnowitz said.

The business dean believes getting into the classroom will energize him, because he’ll be working closely with students again.

Because so many of VCU’s students are first-generation college students, Sesnowitz has a special affinity for them.

“I’m a first-generation college student,” he said. His father was a salesman for a knitting mill in New York’s garment district, and his mother was a bookkeeper.
 
Both his parents believed in the value of education, which in part led to both Sesnowitz and his older sister’s earning doctoral degrees. His is in economics, hers in genetics.

Sesnowitz said his parents gave him a great gift besides a thirst for education.

“I grew up getting one thing from my parents – that the only thing I possessed that no one could take away from me was my integrity. So, I’ve tried to be honest; not cheat people, not lie to people.”

After some retooling to put an edge back on his skills as a classroom teacher, Sesnowitz hopes to make a continuing contribution to the university and to the community.

It will all be part of the VCU story he’s been telling for nine years.

“The story of VCU is that it has given opportunities to students from underrepresented areas,” he said. “We help transform lives, and in the School of Business we help provide the talent that enables the companies in our region to be successful.

“That’s pretty important,” Sesnowitz said.

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Updated: 06/08/2009