RANCHO SANTA FE — Rancho Santa Fe resident Dr. Michael Cunningham was recently named dean of the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University.
As the 19th largest business school in the nation, third in California and 35th largest in the world, Cunningham said he knows he has his work cut out for him during these lean times. But the fact that the country is in the middle of a recession does not seem to slow him down at all.
“I think it is wonderful. I think there is a lot of opportunity in adversity,” he said.
Cunningham is filled with energy and optimism about his new job and couldn’t wait to get started. In fact, he said he has been working for two months in preparation, focusing on strategy, structure and systems. He said he expected his first day to be ceremonial and symbolic.
“I want to celebrate our faculty, students and alumni and business community,” he said.
“We need to make sure our students are great communicators, critical thinkers and team players, as well as having the basic blocking and tackling skills of a traditional business education,” he said.
Cunningham is no stranger to academia. He earned his master’s in graphic communications, management and technology in 1996, and his Ph.D. in administration, leadership and technology in 2005 from New York University.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing and business management from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982. He has taught at both Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and New York University.
He has been teaching management/entrepreneurship courses at SDSU since 2005.
“What we do is offer a wonderful education to our students. It is a real, practical education. We have a the largest alumni network in San Diego from the business school.”
He said there are 60,000 alumni and 80 percent are still in Southern California.
“That is key. It will give them (students) skills and the knowledge to help them get the job they need,” he said.
Some business school graduates have gone on to great careers such as Linda Lang, CEO of Jack in the Box; Mark Snell, CFO of Sempra Energy; and Scott Sulka, a serial entrepreneur in the biotech industry, he said.
“It’s my second career,” Cunningham said. “I decided to take a position with higher education to make an impact on my life. I wanted to create many opportunities for as many students as I can and give back. I’ll be able to do that in a very meaningful way.”
What he hopes to accomplish during that time is to make the business school one of the top in the country. One way he plans to do this, even with the precarious financial situation in California, is to come up with creative ways to increase revenue.
“The state basically limits the amount of students we can take in from the state. So we will go after out-of-state and out-of-country students,” he said.
This will not affect in-state students adversely, he said.
“The out-of-state students are not taking the places of the in-state students, but the out-of-state students pay double tuition and do not receive aid from the state of California,” he said.
“This will allow us to attract diversity of experience and ethnic and geographic diversity that will dove tail into one of our main missions, to supply a well rounded, top quality student to the work force,” he said.
He said a big part of his job also is just getting the word out on what a jewel the college of business is.
“There is the saying: ‘Untold. Unsold,’” he said. “I need to tell the story of how good our students are. They have the eye of the tiger, fire in the belly and they really want to make a difference in the world.”
He said he thinks that people look at the CSU system as a big homogeneous system and that they are all alike and that the UC system is much better. Cunningham said he hopes to change that perception.
“They don’t realize that it was the number one small college in the state and the top 20 selected university in the nation. Last year, there were 66,000 applicants and less than 5,000 got accepted,” he said.
Cunningham knows of which he teaches having built a successful business first hand.
Prior to his academic career, Cunningham, 51, founded Cunningham Graphics International (CGI) in 1989 and took the company public in 1998 on the NASDAQ stock exchange. By the time Cunningham sold CGI to Automatic Data Processing in 2000, it had operations in five countries and employed 1,500 people.
He moved to Rancho Santa Fe in 2000 so he could spend more time with his family.
“As any business person will attest that growing a business you don’t spend a lot of time at home, so when you retire at 40, you can spend meaningful, quality time with your kids. That was very important to me,” he said.
His son, Michael, 23, graduated from New York University and his daughter Christine, 22, ust graduated from Stanford. His daughter Tress, 17, is entering New York University in the fall after having graduated from Torrey Pines High School.
All are products of the R. Roger Rowe School in Rancho Santa Fe, he said. He said he is very proud of them.
“It has a lot to do with their mother, Ellie, and the quality of education we have in Rancho Santa Fe and the whole area,” he said.
Cunningham said he has committed to five years in his new position. He is succeeding Gail Naughton, who has been the dean for the past nine years. He said she caught the bug and is resigning to open her own business.