Thursday, May 27, 2021

When Amy Kristof-Brown arrived at the Tippie College of Business as an assistant professor more than 20 years ago, she made waves as a top scholar. Over time, she also made her mark as an engaged, strategic administrator.

In 2019, she was the consensus choice to take on the role of interim dean when her predecessor, Sarah Fisher Gardial, announced her departure. No one could have predicted that her tenure in the role, which started March 2020, would coincide with a world-changing pandemic, but she proved up to the task. “She was the calm in the midst of a storm,” recalls Yvette Taylor (MBA92), a Tippie Advisory Board member.

Over the past year, she’s strengthened the college’s position and burnished her credentials as a crisis leader. She’s earned praise for her steady leadership, collaborative approach, and authentic communication. In November, after a thorough international search, she was elevated to the role for good.

In February, we sat down virtually with Kristof-Brown (known affectionately as AKB) to learn more about what drives her, how she navigated the pandemic, and what she plans to do in the coming years to take Tippie to the next level.

You’ve been at Tippie since 1997, starting as an assistant professor and becoming a full professor, then moving through roles as director of graduate studies, department chair, and senior associate dean. How has that trajectory influenced the way you think about leading the institution?

I understand the faculty experience. I’ve depended on every staff member in this college to be successful at different points in time, and I know the value of their roles and why they’re there.

When I became director of graduate studies—and later, other administrative roles—I began thinking about how the systems at the university worked, and how to give people what they needed to be successful.

My role today is broader because it looks externally, but the driving factor remains the same: I’m looking at the array of resources, connections, and opportunities that can help our college be more successful.

You were nominated to become interim dean in the fall of 2019 and officially took the position in March 2020. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a few things changed in those months. What did it feel like to be in your shoes when you took the helm?

I had been shadowing former dean Sarah Fisher Gardial in January and February, and I stepped into the interim role March 1.

By March 13, we had closed everything on campus.

There wasn’t much time to think about the enormity of what was going on. There were just decisions that had to be made. Crisis leadership requires you to move quickly.

One thing that was helpful was I already knew the college. We could make decisions about expanding programs and going directly to donors to ask for support. There was a clarity of focus. Everyone started pulling in the same direction.

At the same time, I knew the faculty and staff really well. I was hearing from people, and I knew the anxiety was building. I also knew the resources we had to draw on. I empathized with them: we were going through this together.

Our leadership team would help them get through it. That’s what we’re here for.

Can you give examples of key decisions you made during those early days of the pandemic?

There were three big ones. First, we worked to equip our faculty with what they needed to teach online. Some of them literally had to make the switch overnight. The Stead Technology Services Group was instrumental in quickly equipping faculty to teach online. We had access to the University of Iowa Center for Teaching, but we also found 40 faculty members who were willing to mentor others on online teaching. We came out of the gate so quickly because of that.

Second, we got resources out to students. We made sure that students got the technology they needed. We also worked on getting financial support to students—particularly for first-generation and underrepresented minority students who weren’t sure if they would be able to come back without it.

Third, our Online MBA, which we had launched in the fall of 2019, was staffed to support 40 students. We worried that we might lose 20 percent of our undergraduate enrollment in the fall, or we might lose funding if the state budget collapsed. We dropped our GMAT requirement and waived application fees. That opened the door to people who wanted to do something during this pandemic. We got more than four times as many applicants as normal and we ended up admitting 160 students in the summer. The quality of this group was incredible: by undergraduate GPA, we had one of the most qualified classes ever.

What were some of the lessons of this crisis?

I would highlight the importance of a dedicated team. We have a tremendous group who understood the fundamentals of the college and what we could do to support each other and our students. That includes Senior Associate Dean Barry Thomas, Associate Dean for Research and Ph.D. Programs Nick Street, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Jennifer Blackhurst, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Ken Brown. [In July, Brown is returning to faculty in the management and entrepreneurship department.]

We’ve also got top-notch department executive officers and incredible executive staff: Chief Operations Officer Jim Chaffee, Chief Financial Officer Linda McNiel, Executive Director of Communication and Alumni Relations Barb Thomas, Executive Director of Marketing and Recruiting Ali Yildirim, and Senior Human Resources Director Sharon Beck.

This group of staff, together with our associate deans, provided the guiding wisdom for all decisions that were made during COVID, as well as the strategic planning we’ve been working on since the summer of 2020. 

In addition, faculty chipped in to mentor one another. With staff, we were able to move people around within the college to areas that needed assistance. We didn’t have any furloughs; we didn’t lay anyone off.

I just can’t say enough about the quality of leadership on the team and the caliber of people in the college. They’ve all stepped up for one another.

You mentioned Ken Brown... He’s also your husband! You don’t see that every day.

He and I both came to Iowa to start our careers together and have built a wonderful life here. He is an accomplished academic and has been associate dean of the undergraduate program for seven years.  

I firmly believe that there are few places in the world where we both could have carved out distinct and successful career paths like we have here. In so many places one spouse has to sacrifice their career for the other. Tippie never made us do that.  

As we move past the most acute phase of the pandemic, what will be your priorities for the college?

First, we’d like to engage more with companies and the business community—it’s our biggest area of weakness. That engagement means strategic partnerships with organizations for things like live cases, student projects, and executive speakers. We want to do a great job developing, cultivating, and tracking these partnerships.

Another top priority is to raise the external reputation of the college, including our reputation for research expertise.

We also want to expand our alumni connections, both at the individual level and through corporate connections.

Are there areas of the Tippie experience that you consider “hidden gems” that you’ll try to draw attention to?

There are a lot! We have a CPA pass rate that’s one of the country’s best. Both our management and entrepreneurship as well as our business analytics programs have four faculty each in editorial positions in some of the top journals in their fields. Our Hawkinson Institute in the finance department has created an extremely successful pipeline to Wall Street. The Marketing Institute in the marketing department has 100 percent placement rates with starting salaries up to 50 percent higher than average. Last year the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center provided $460,800 in seed funding for new ventures on campus and in the broader statewide entrepreneurial ecosystem. And in 1988 our economics department launched the Iowa Electronic Markets, our online futures market created for teaching and research. It is the longest running real money prediction market in the world.

Right now, few outside of Iowa City or the people hiring these students know about this great work. We want to make sure that these programs, faculty, centers, and institutes get attention more broadly. We want to be a participant among world-class institutions in the discussions about innovations in business and talent development.

You’ve had an intense year, but I hear that when things aren’t so overwhelming, you’re pretty fun at a party.

I guess so! I like to go all-in on the staff Halloween party. One year, I wore an inflatable hippopotamus ballerina costume, and I held up a sign that said, “Follow your dreams.” Two years ago, before COVID, I dressed in an inflatable T-rex costume and held up a sign that said, “You are doing a T-riffic job.” I love a good costume. 

I do think people should try to have fun with what they’re doing, and I try to bring that attitude to work. I tell students and junior faculty to enjoy the life you’re living now, all of it, instead of thinking you’ll enjoy it later. I think that approach matters.

What else do you want alumni to know about what the future holds for Tippie?

I think they should be excited about our faculty and programs they should be pleased with the quality of what we’re doing and who we have doing it. They’re going to be hearing more about Tippie, because we’ll be showcasing more of what we’re doing in a way that is going to make them proud to talk about us.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Tippie Magazine. Alumni are invited to update their contact information with the college to be placed on the mailing list for future print editions.