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  Dean Emeritus Donald Jacobs
  © Nathan Mandell
Dean Emeritus Donald P. Jacobs

Retired? Don't even think it.
Kellogg School Dean Emeritus Donald Jacobs is as busy as ever - as a faculty member 

By Matt Golosinski

Don Jacobs would like to set the record straight for those well-wishers who stop him in airports, asking how he's enjoying retirement: If and when he actually does retire, he will be pleased to detail the experience for anyone curious.

Until then, it's much more likely to find the former Kellogg School dean in the classroom.

Indeed, while Jacobs seems happy and relaxed these days, he nevertheless shoulders a workload that could give some junior professors pause. At 78, he teaches four courses at Kellogg, runs its Zell Center for Risk Research and travels extensively for the school.

Returning from a lunch meeting at the James L. Allen Center, he tosses his suit jacket over a chair in his office in the building that bears his name - a distinction granted in 2001 to honor his 26-year tenure as Kellogg dean after he stepped down from that role and Dipak C. Jain assumed the leadership. Though always affable, Jacobs smiles perhaps a little more easily these days now that he has returned to his first love, teaching.

And teach he does. He and longtime friend Doug Gray, managing director of Chicago-based Braydon Partners LLC and member of the Kellogg Dean's Advisory Board, deliver a "capstone" course, Strategic Dilemmas in Business Design, that leverages case studies and brings senior executives into the classroom to offer MBA students insight into why ventures succeed or fail and explores a variety of strategic issues related to merger integration, compensation, outsourcing, governance, and entry into markets such as China, among other topics. In addition, Jacobs directs a Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) class to the European Union and leads a course on risk management. He also teaches corporate governance, a subject that has long occupied his attention. As if this wasn't enough, he serves on several corporate boards, including ProLogic, Terex and CDW.

Where some might content themselves with retreating to contemplate the memorabilia of a robust academic life - the awards and publications, the 10 honorary degrees in his office, his overall accomplishments - Jacobs, who began his Kellogg tenure as a finance professor in 1957 before being named dean in 1975, shows little sign of slowing down.

"As long as I'm enjoying it, why stop teaching?" he says. "It's hard to leave something when you're having such a good time."

If it is obvious to those around him that Jacobs remains engaged in the intellectual life of Kellogg, it may be surprising to some that he no longer has anything to do with the school's administration. This is a point about which he is unequivocal.

"I am in no way part of the administration. That's not my job. That's Dean Jain's job. I'm working for him as a professor, which makes me very happy," says Jacobs.

So does Professor Jacobs have any gripes with the way things are being run at Kellogg?

"Dean Jain is doing a fine, fine job. I have absolutely no concern with the decisions that are made - and I don't hear about them until they are made public."

Jacobs says that the transition from dean to faculty member was made easier knowing that his successor had the leadership, energy and talent to keep Kellogg in the top ranks. And he had looked forward to engaging the students full-time again, after years of limited teaching.

"I had to cut back," he says, "because the job in the dean's office became too time consuming."

But the passion for teaching never left him. "As far as I'm concerned, that's the joy of being at a university: You teach. I don't want to denigrate the administrative side of things, because that all must get done and it entails a lot of important work. But teaching is the real joy for me. Unfortunately, they gave me the dean's job for a while and then forgot to fire me."

The classroom to which Jacobs has returned isn't quite the same one he left years ago. For one thing, he is teaching several subjects instead of just banking. Then too, the business world has changed, which makes the teaching mission that much more rewarding.

Jacobs sounds enthusiastic about an academic schedule that gives him the opportunity to indulge his intellectual curiosity in a number of ways, such as introducing Zell Center research on risk into the classroom, or traveling with students to Europe for an annual GIM excursion. "I have a lot of colleagues in the European Union," he says, "and it's great to see students and friends in places like Brussels, Paris and London."

Jacobs is no stranger to travel. This year he will teach executives in Hong Kong and Germany, but he has also made several other international trips. In August, he and Dean Jain traveled to Thailand to teach at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, with which Kellogg has an alliance, and to meet with its deans and directors. In September, he visited China as a ProLogis board member and in October delivered a keynote speech on reinventing management education before an audience in Beijing at the Guanghua Business School. November finds him traveling with Dean Jain to Tel Aviv to attend graduation ceremonies at Kellogg IEMBA partner, the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration.

"I think I'm overdoing it, but the fact of the matter is I don't know how to slow down," Jacobs says, smiling.

It is the teaching that he finds especially gratifying, and he works to make the classroom an engaging setting for his students.

"I have a firm belief in the value of structuring a highly interactive classroom to keep students involved," he says. "This way there is a discussion, a seminar feeling. As a student, I responded to the same methodology that I try to foster. I liked the professors who created a give-and-take."

In addition, Jacobs keeps the focus on relevant takeaways from contemporary business so that students can leverage these insights in the workplace.

"My belief is you can teach the theory of how things are done, but then you better demonstrate to the students that there is an application of that theory, to make them understand that there is a bridge between theory and application." he says, adding that he and Doug Gray strive to deliver this balance in their dilemmas course.

"Our investigations are concerned with issues of today and tomorrow. We talk to students in a language they understand, that challenges them and that gives them the tools to achieve top results."

Gray agrees, noting that the dilemmas course is designed to test student skills across a range of areas in a "practically powerful way." Gray says the class is "constantly being reinvented" and relies upon the same innovation that has propelled the growth of Kellogg itself - qualities he says also exemplify Jacobs' approach in the classroom.

"Don is a 'be-the-ball' kind of guy and he loves to teach," says Gray, who first met Jacobs some 25 years ago with the Kellogg professor served on the board of Gray's company, Swift Independent Corp. "He is an extraordinary academician and leader - that's obvious. But some people may not realize that Don is also an exceptional businessman with an ability to bridge theory and practice."

Gray says that the arc of Jacobs' career has been one of passionate commitment to Kellogg. That his friend has now returned to the classroom simply means Jacobs has returned to what initially inspired him.

"Don's career grew out of this passion and an engagement with great students," notes Gray. "In fact, as dean, he was really leading out of this sense of intense dedication. So once he stepped down from that role he just continued following his passion in the classroom again. It's come full circle."

Kellogg students likely recognize their good fortune at enjoying the experience and insights of Jacobs, but their professor also appreciates his opportunity to be among "some of the very best students from around the globe."

It's this interaction with students, colleagues and alumni that Jacobs says helps him keep on top of important research trends, particularly in finance and economics.

"You want to be near people who are smart and from whom you can learn," he says. "The nice thing about being at Kellogg is that I have colleagues I love to talk to and I keep reading all the economic literature that I am used to reading."

That's all well and good, but what does Professor Jacobs do for fun?

"This is what I do for fun," he says, smiling and gesturing at his office and the textbooks and papers that fill it. "If it wasn't so much fun, I'd be gone."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University