Gregory Prastacos: Mixing technology and tradition at Stevens — and changing business education nationwide

When Gregory Prastacos arrived at Stevens Institute of Technology in February 2012, he felt bad for the business students he was hired to lead. Because they weren’t business students.

At the time, Stevens did not have a traditional business school in name — or accreditation. Instead, the world-renowned STEM school had a School of Technology Management. 

Confused? You’re not the only one.

“The students spent quite some time explaining to job interviewers what a technology management school is,” Prastacos said.

That’s no longer an issue. Prastacos is now the dean of the School of Business at Stevens, one that is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB. One that is highly rated by U.S. News & World Report (both undergraduate and graduate). And one that is leading the way to change the way business schools instruct and operate.

Prastacos, through the AACSB, is in the opening months of rebuilding the curricula and overall focus and mission of business schools around the country. He’s helping to create a model for the 21st century, one — no surprise — that is built on (but not entirely based on) the impact of technology.

Prastacos recently sat down with ROI-NJ to talk about this and all things Stevens. Here’s a look at the interview, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with School of Business at Stevens as it is today. Where does it stand?

Gregory Prastacos: It’s a very special school of business in the sense that it teaches the traditional areas, but it looks at everything from an angle of analytics and technology. We do this for two reasons: 1) We are into the ecosystem of Stevens, which is a great technology university. And 2) Because technology today is creating value and is adding value to companies and businesses.

When you look at the younger generation, they’re all interested in technology. All the app entrepreneurs are what really interests the younger generation. When you look at the best companies that everybody wants to work for, they are big companies of technology. We are moving into an age where technology is the big enabler in terms of processes, in terms of decision making, in terms of creating cultures.

About a year and a half ago, we felt that you have to also change the way we educate, what we teach and maybe how we teach. It started by creating an affinity group within AACSB.

ROI: Thanks for the perfect transition into the transformation you are leading. Let’s talk about how you are changing business school education.

GP: Together with (Sandeep Krishnamurthy), my fellow dean at the University of Washington (Bothell), we made the proposal to AACSB to create an affinity group on digital transformation. And, within that affinity group, I made a proposal to revise the management curricula for the digital era. This was accepted very enthusiastically by all the members of the digital affinity group. I made the proposal to AACSB to take this under their umbrella as an AACSB initiative, which they did. And I also made the proposal to PwC to fund it. PwC is a company that has done a lot to advance the digital savviness of their consultants. And I’ve been extremely impressed by what they do.

So, through these connections, we were able to get a grant and now have a project called MACUDE, which stands for Management Curriculum for the Digital Era. It involves about 100 schools, about 150 faculty and deans from all over the U.S.

When you look at the best companies that everybody wants to work for, they are big companies of technology. We are moving into an age where technology is the big enabler in terms of processes, in terms of decision making, in terms of creating cultures.”

ROI: How is it set up?

GP: There are task forces, one for per every major discipline of a business curriculum. There’s a task force on finance, marketing, management, leadership, supply chain and so on and so forth. There are 10 task forces and every task force has about 20 schools. Some schools participate in two or three. And within every task force, there’s a leader.

The project goes through three phases. First, they look at what is the state of the curriculum today within the discipline. Then, they look outside to industry to understand the needs and the new skills that industry needs from our graduates. The third phase is putting one and two together to create the curriculum for the particular discipline. And then all this comes to Stevens, which is the principal investigator of this project, and we work with the task force leaders to create a new curriculum for the undergraduate and graduate level.

ROI: What is the status of the project?

GP: The project started Nov. 1, and it’s supposed to last two years. So, we’re at the beginning. About half of the task forces already have their leaders. We’re working on the other half. And everybody’s extremely excited. Industry is playing a big role in this project because industry is the one that’s driving the change. Industry was telling us that we’re not getting the skills that they needed.

ROI: You mention more than 100 schools and deans. Have to ask, how many are from New Jersey?

GP: There are five schools, along with Stevens: Monmouth, Montclair State, Rowan, Rutgers and Seton Hall. There would be more schools, but there is a capacity limitation. I would love to include all the schools, especially in New Jersey. But 100 already is too big. It is undergraduate, graduate and executive education.

ROI: Graduate and executive education. Now you’re talking to our readership. Talk a little bit more about these areas?

GP: We want to look at executive education, because education is changing. Together with the digital, the whole lifestyle is changing. And, right now, as we speak, the new old is going to be 80 years old. It used to be 60-65, it’s coming up to 80. That means that, if you get your degree at 25, even your graduate degree, you cannot stay at the workforce until 80 without getting additional education. So, now, there’s a new concept that we have another audience, which is the people who want to have a continuous style of education. 

It won’t be the same type of education like before, when you came to a school, stayed for a whole year and got a degree. It’s going to be something of more interactive, but long distance and maybe modular. That’s why, if you look at the MBA space, there’s a lot of schools that are converting their MBA into a set of modules. So, you go to school for a semester, you take four courses, that’s one module. But you continue to work. Sometime later, if you take another module, and then, sometime later, you take a third module, you’re done, and you’ve got your MBA. So, that is something that’s a very great interest, not only to us, to the whole business community, and that’s what why we are looking at the executive education.

ROI: Let’s talk more about being a tech school. Liberal arts schools all want to talk about their tech program. I’m betting you want to talk about your liberal arts studies?

GP: I have a theory here: Short-term, we all need to become more tech. We all need to become more analytical. And I always struggle in the dilemma for my students in the sense that I want them to have good job by the time they graduate, so they need to be more tech. They need to have taken all the analytics courses to be employable and to get good jobs. But, if you look down the road 10 years from now, maybe some of these functions will be replaced by robots, by algorithms. And, if you are stuck in that frame of mind, I don’t know how far away you can go.

So, there is a dilemma here between teaching them all this tech stuff, but also developing their mind and their curiosity and their critical thinking and their confidence in moving around and exploring other areas as time goes by. That’s an issue. And it’s one of the critical issues I’m facing, and I want the project to address. I am not supporting all tech and that’s it. This is not going to go anywhere. Jobs are changing, and you need to have more than just computer science rigor and math.

ROI: How do you do that?

GP: By adding more research. I believe you train the students better if there’s a research culture. If you train the students to think out of the box, if you train the students to solve problems that were not solved before, then you prepare them better for tomorrow, where everything will be new. So, if you talk to employers, they will tell you we look for people who have curious minds. They don’t want people who check the boxes and then go home.

ROI: How is this transformation going at Stevens?

I would like to be characterized, ideally, 10 years from now, as a leader in business education that is located in New Jersey. That would have big impact to New Jersey and to the New Jersey economy, because it would attract top people and top companies.”

GP: There was a long culture here about technology management, but everybody was convinced that this is the way to go. When we decided to go for business accreditation, we started developing undergraduate programs. When I came, there were two undergraduate majors; now there are eight. When I came, there were five graduate programs; now there are 11. And we’re going out to industry and developing cohorts for industry. Right now, we have four MBA sections running for JPMorgan. We have programs running for UBS, for Accenture, for Pfizer. We’re developing international programs, programs in China, in India, in Europe. The number of students has more than doubled. The number of faculty research active faculty has tripled. So, there has been a huge growth that brought along reputation. Now we are ranked among the Top 100 business schools in the country by U.S. News. It has been a very satisfying journey.

ROI: Stevens has long enjoyed a great reputation as a STEM school, for science, technology, engineering and math — one that it is now gaining as a business school. But, to be fair, it has never been seen as a New Jersey school. It has been said it is in the state, but not of the state — connected more to New York City and the world than the Garden State. Is this a fair criticism?

GP: To me, a school that has such a global reputation is good for the state. We are at the border between New Jersey and New York. So, geographically, New York City is extremely useful. You can bring executives over for lunch. And you not only have all the professional opportunities, but cultural opportunities. By getting people here and having New York right across the river, you provide a very safe living environment on campus, but you have access to all these opportunities.

But, maybe, there is an element of truth in this in the sense that maybe we haven’t done enough to talk to the small companies of New Jersey. Maybe we should do a little more. This growth has been so phenomenal, it hasn’t left us any time to think about some things, like that for example. 

I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, that I would like to be characterized as a New Jersey school. I would like to be characterized, ideally, 10 years from now, as a leader in business education that is located in New Jersey. That would have big impact to New Jersey and to the New Jersey economy, because it would attract top people and top companies. Whenever you have a good business school, obviously that’s a source of talent and that attracts companies, attract startups, it creates jobs.

ROI: Attraction. Of companies. Of students. It’s the No. 1 issue in higher education today. And the No. 1 issue in STEM programs is the attraction of underserved populations, whether it be ethnic or gender diversity. Talk about Stevens’ efforts there?

GP: This is a big priority for us. And it goes through all the levels, including faculty. When we recruit faculty, we want to make sure that diversity and inclusion is among the first priorities we pay attention to. Technology is an area that does not attract as many women as, let’s say, the liberal arts or humanities. So, we’re trying to do various initiatives, like women in business. We do the Junior Achievement program, which is a running every year, 300 women coming on campus from high schools. We aim to become more and more. At the graduate level, the percentage is much bigger. There is big ethnic diversity. At the graduate level, we’re about 60% international. We are trying to grow the domestic component of that.

ROI: It’s amazing to look back at the transformation Stevens has made since you arrived. Talk about the journey.

GP: I have to admit that, here at the Stevens School of Business, we are way ahead of most of the other schools, basically because of our DNA. We’re technology and, therefore, it’s been easier to introduce new programs, courses, certificates, boot camps, a lot of labs and so forth. Our students are coming out and they are very well equipped. If you look at our placement rates, it is between 98 and 100% at the undergraduate. If you look at the graduate level, two years ago, we were No. 1 in the U.S. and we were ranked No. 11 in terms of reputation among corporate employers and No. 11 in a country that has Harvard and Wharton (at the University of Pennsylvania), Kellogg (at Northwestern) and everybody.

We are ahead, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover. Plus, these things are changing very quickly. That’s why our efforts to change how business is taught is such a very important project.