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Accidental Journeys, Administrative Successes

Educator Madhav V. Rajan brings years of expertise, and a spirit of adventure, to his role as dean of The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.


As dean of The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Indian American academic Madhav V. Rajan guides the education of hundreds of young students, and shapes the future of an academic institution revered around the world.

It’s a pivotal role that the experienced educator clearly relishes, but one that, Rajan says, he never saw coming. “Even two years ago, I couldn’t have predicted I would have this job,” he says, with a hearty laugh, “and 10 years ago, I never would have even seen myself in academic administration at all!”

“But, there are very few jobs like it in the world,” he continues, “and it has been a truly amazing opportunity.”

To those unfamiliar with academic administration, Rajan likens his job to that of a corporate CEO. “When you’re the dean of a business school, in many ways, you’re the public face,” he says. “You are the person who is representative of the institution to its many, many constituents.” Much of Rajan’s work consists of connecting the school to the outside world, whether that means building relationships with alumni, raising money for new construction or initiatives, or helping to spread awareness about Chicago Booth’s efforts and accomplishments.

The rest of his work is internal. Rajan manages the school’s budget, programs and staff, among other responsibilities, and describes himself as a facilitator for amazing colleagues. “I enjoy putting talented people in jobs that allow them to make a difference and letting them run with it,” he says. “I’ve always been comfortable promoting people and empowering them to do things, taking care of what I can do well myself and delegating other tasks. That sort of approach has been very helpful to me.”

Rajan was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and studied in both India and the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Madras, and an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in business from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Even as a Ph.D. student, Rajan didn’t really consider a career in academia or administration, until it happened.

“I thought I would finish my degree and then figure out what I would do,” he says. “But, it worked out that I got a job offer to be a faculty member at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which was a great opportunity.” Joining the faculty at the age of 24, Rajan would spend the next 12 years teaching accounting at Wharton, one of the most prestigious business schools in the world.

The next stop on his accelerating career journey was Stanford University in California, where he received an offer to become a professor in 2001. Soon thereafter, he also became the head of the school’s accounting department and, after eight years of service, the senior associate dean for academic affairs, from 2010 to 2016. “Again, I had never thought about being in academic administration, but it sounded like something that I might enjoy,” he says. “It turned out to be a great role for me.”

For those interested in following a similar path, Rajan recommends treating the goal of academic administration as secondary to a solid foundation of academics itself. “The first step is to become established at a top school,” he says. “Publish your work in leading journals and figure out how you want to do your teaching. If you’re the kind of person who’s curious about the world, you enjoy problem-solving and you want to look more deeply into fundamental issues, then it might be worth asking how you can have a broader impact in an administrative role, and not just in an academic one.”

For ambitious students of any discipline, Rajan advises diligence, hard work and a commitment to do one’s best, regardless of position or type of work.

“A lot of life is about meeting the right people and getting the right breaks,” he says, “and I’ve certainly been lucky to have that. But, key in life is also understanding who you are, what your strengths are and how to maximize those strengths.”

Most importantly, Rajan advises, simply strive to be authentic in whatever role or position you find yourself in. “You can’t try to be someone you’re not,” he says, “and as long as you understand yourself and are able to perform your role keeping that in mind, things will work out.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.