FIU business dean defends performance as tensions build

When Florida International University hired David Klock as its business school dean, the announcement lauded Klock’s distinguished track record, citing his experience leading two other business schools and his entrepreneurial expertise as CEO of a multimillion-dollar dental insurance company.

FIU’s president and provost thought so much of Klock that they made him one of the highest-paid business deans in the state, at $370,000 a year.

But a year later, a growing chorus of faculty and students is questioning the wisdom of that investment. They contend Klock’s management style has led to staff turnover and an air of anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the business school.

When several dozen students from FIU’s Healthcare MBA program met with Klock last month, they repeatedly — at times angrily — demanded an explanation for the exit of the program’s popular director, Nancy Borkowski. She unexpectedly stepped down in August, and many in the program blame it on Klock’s increasingly controversial leadership.

“You’re changing everything,” one student complained to Klock. “You’re taking the most powerful voice that FIU has in healthcare in South Florida, and you’re pushing her out.”

More than 100 students, staff and alumni have signed a petition demanding the reinstatement of Borkowski, who remains at FIU as a faculty member. She declined to comment.

Tensions bubble

The abrupt resignation — which Klock insists was not his doing — is only one of many thorny issues embroiling the business dean. Some of that internal tension could bubble to the surface during a business faculty assembly scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday.

Klock has heard the criticism but said it’s limited to a small group of disgruntled employees.

“As a new dean, sometimes things change,” Klock said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “Things are done differently, and some small number of people just don’t like change, and they tend to want to make lots of comments.”

The new dean ticks off a long list of accomplishments in his first year: the hiring of 15 new faculty members; a 13 percent increase in the number of first-year and transfer students; a new focus on better serving undergraduates through improved technology and student advising.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg — who knew Klock previously and pushed for his hire — is standing by his pick.

“There is a campaign by a few people to discredit this individual,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not saying there aren’t issues. Every dean, there are issues. But this happens all the time. This is normal business for a new dean.”

Anonymous emails have circulated around the university in recent months, blasting the dean for a variety of offenses. FIU business professor David Ralston said the discontent appears widespread.

“He’s just apparently alienated the great majority of the faculty, from my own personal conversations with faculty members who wish to remain anonymous,” Ralston said. “The reason there’s so much anonymous email going around is that there is a fear of retribution.”

Faculty and staff have privately grumbled that Klock’s focus on the bottom line — second-guessing items such as travel, catering and employee raises — has demoralized the department. Some also say Klock lacks the international expertise necessary to thrive in Miami’s diverse culture.

In the year since Klock took over the College of Business, about a dozen employees — predominately women and/or minorities — have taken jobs elsewhere. A summary of exit interviews collected by FIU’s personnel department from that period includes a “Feedback regarding Dean Klock” section, with four bullet points. All of them are negative.

The form doesn’t identify specific former employees, but the criticism includes comments such as he is “a poor leader,” “is not approachable,” and is someone who “does not know our needs and is not aligned with the College’s goals.”

Jorge Arrizurieta, a member of FIU’s board of trustees, said he is “very concerned with the decibel level of what’s going on in the school of business.”

“I understand how a new ‘sheriff’ has new approaches,” Arrizurieta said. “For whatever reason, most of what I have heard is the negative, not the positive. If nothing else, the dean has a serious internal PR issue.”

Business schools occupy a prominent place at many colleges — FIU included. Nearly one-third of FIU’s total degrees are awarded by the College of Business, and its international business degree track has been nationally recognized. The business school’s graduate programs, such as the Healthcare MBA, are also big moneymakers for the university, thanks to the hefty tuition that they charge.

FIU had spent years trying to find a new business school dean. The university moved unusually quickly in hiring Klock. In the weeks before Klock’s hire, Rosenberg emailed Provost Douglas Wartzok for an update on the dean search. After Wartzok responded, summarizing the status of Klock and other candidates, Rosenberg wrote back: “All I know is we gotta move.”

Before Klock had even met with FIU’s selection committee in mid-2012, the new dean was negotiating his starting salary with Wartzok, email records show. They show Klock was disappointed in FIU’s initial salary offer, and the university finally agreed to pay $370,000 a year — which is more than $100,000 higher than what the business dean at the University of Florida makes.

Records show at least some selection committee members were uncomfortable with how fast things were progressing.

In a July 16, 2012, email, FIU professor Mary Ann Von Glinow, director of the Center for International Business Education and Research, told the provost to hold off on making a hasty decision. Klock, she wrote, had a questionable track record as an administrator and had been unimpressive in his on-campus interview.

“There is no reason to act swiftly, except to reject him,” Von Glinow wrote. “He isn’t close to what we want, or need at the B-school, and based on the comments I have heard after his presentation, he bombed.”

Four days later, Klock was officially hired.

Klock, a Massachusetts native, has a varied and impressive résumé. He is the son of a milkman, and the first in his family to go to college. He holds a doctorate in finance and credits his education with driving his financial success.

In 1980, while Klock was a professor at the University of Central Florida, he says a former student asked him to get involved in CompBenefits, a small dental benefits company. Klock and his wife, Phyllis, eventually took over the company, and under their watch it expanded to almost five million members in nearly two dozen states — with roughly $350 million in revenues. Health insurance giant Humana purchased CompBenefits for $360 million in 2007.

While Klock ran the firm, one of its acquisitions was Miami-based Oral Health Services. In shepherding that deal, Klock said he spent extensive time in Miami, and that both he and his wife, a Spanish speaker, are fond of the city.

“It’s dynamic, it’s exciting,” Klock said. “It’s international, it’s moving fast.”

At the time he was hired by FIU, Klock was dean of the School of Business at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Before that, he ran the business school at Cal Poly Pomona. During Klock’s tenure at UAB, a dispute with a Hispanic professor escalated to the point that the professor filed a federal lawsuit alleging a “hostile work environment” for female and/or minority employees. Klock said there was “zero” truth to the lawsuit.

Suit settled

The professor worked in the business school’s Center for Labor Education and Research, which Klock shut down. The suit was ultimately settled, and the professor transferred to the department of history.

Klock also closed UAB’s Small Business Development Center, which had operated for 25 years. In an interview last week, Klock said he closed both facilities because they were losing money. In a time of declining state funding, and with families struggling to pay for college tuition, Klock said public institutions have a duty to operate “as efficiently as we possibly can.”

At FIU, Klock told staff that “starvation” can be a good motivator, according to the personnel exit interviews. They summarized his point this way: “When people experience starvation, they tend to become more creative and are willing to work harder.”

Klock defended the comment, while arguing it might have been taken out of context by some staffers. The dean said he was referring to entrepreneurship, and how research shows that young companies tend to perform better when they have just enough resources, as opposed to an abundance of start-up capital.

In keeping with that philosophy, Klock said he has tightened the purse strings of FIU’s in-house entrepreneurship center.

But in the business school as a whole, Klock said spending is actually up about 9 percent, which he called evidence he’s hardly the bean-counter some professors make him out to be. Klock also says his record of hiring in the past year, with the number of minority staffers and faculty both rising, demonstrates his commitment to diversity.

Overall, Klock said he was optimistic about the business school’s future, and he’s impressed by the quality of FIU faculty — even as some of those same faculty are quietly working to get him fired.

“The faculty here are every bit as good as any business school faculty in the state of Florida,” Klock said. “I am extremely proud of this faculty… they are awesome.”

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