Before Owen Was Owen
How the Early Classes Shaped the School to Come
A Look Back with Tom Barton, Frank Bumstead, Amy Jorgensen Conlee, Gigi Lazenby, and Greg Tucker
Written by Randy Horick
With a mixture of amusement and head-scratching incredulity, Tom Barton, MBA’77, still remembers the research paper he wrote for Dewey Daane, now The Frank K. Houston Professor of Finance, Emeritus, over 30 years ago.
For the assignment, each student had to study a specific period in the history of the Federal Reserve. “I was so stupid,” laughs Barton, “that I picked a period when Dewey was on the Fed. And then I was so doubly stupid that I didn’t bother to interview him.
“He failed me on the report. So I went to see him and said, ‘Dewey’—we were on a first-name basis with most of our professors, at least outside of class, and Dewey and I were good friends—‘why did you fail me?’
“He looked at me and said, ‘Tom, this is not how it happened.’
“And I said, ‘I got it all right out of the book.’
“He said, ‘The book is wrong.’
“Luckily,” recounts Barton, “he let me redo the paper—after I interviewed him and got the real story.”
Barton’s experience not only illuminates some of the continuities—the closeness of the relationships, the real-world experience of the faculty—between the Graduate School of Management (GSM), as it was known then, and the Owen of today (the school wouldn’t acquire the name Owen until several months after Barton’s class graduated). It also provides a practical lesson for studying the history of Owen itself.
You can read about Owen’s early years in the official History of the Owen School, written by Madison Smartt Bell. Unlike the volume consulted by Barton, Bell’s book stands in no need of correction. Still, if you want the undocumented skinny on what the student experience was like in those heady days, it’s worthwhile to talk to some of the students who actually experienced it all.
Almost invariably, the conversations begin with memories of the school’s home from 1970 to 1982—a stately if monolithic structure that once stood on the corner of West End Avenue now occupied by Borders Books. Having once served as the Cosmopolitan Funeral Home, the building was renamed Henry Clay Alexander Hall by the university after its renovation. But the students just called it “The Mortuary.” “Two stories and an underground bunker,” says Barton of the building.
Amy Jorgensen Conlee, MBA’77, remembers the staff’s annoyance at occasional interruptions by people who walked in, thinking The Mortuary was still a mortuary, perhaps confusing Alexander Hall for the funeral home that still occupies a prominent spot across West End. “The place still looked like a mortuary,” Conlee says. “There was an elegant lobby at the front door that was obviously where you would come to services. We had our opening assembly in the mortuary chapel. The elevator was the size for a coffin. One of our big classrooms in the basement was the red room. It obviously had been the embalming room.”
To Conlee, Alexander Hall “definitely had a creepy feel.” Others were unperturbed. “We just laughed about the mortuary part,” says Gigi Lazenby, MBA’73. “Nobody really cared.”
Still, Barton says, “You didn’t walk up there and go, ‘Wow, what’s the size of the endowment of this school?’ It was very basic. The SAE house was right behind us. You could always smell the beer when you were in the parking lot.”
Photo: A typical classroom scene from the same time period.
Though only the 10 students who comprised the initial, experimental class from 1969 can attest to it, even The Mortuary was a step up from the school’s original digs: a bar area in the basement of the University Club. “We ate a lot of free food,” remembers Greg Tucker, MMgmt’71. As the Cosmopolitan was being readied, the joke ran that anyone undertaking to be a manager of change was either drunk or soon to be dead.
Once they moved into the new space, it didn’t take long for administrators to realize that the fledgling school would be unable to grow as long as it was quartered in The Mortuary. Yet the constricted spaces, by forcing students together, also helped establish Owen as a close-knit environment for decades to come.
No place better exemplified that dynamic than the library—one large room that housed most of the school’s collection of books and periodicals. “You could sit in this one chair with casters,” says Barton, “and reach every book just by sliding around the room.”
Those early students began what became an Owen tradition: end-of-the-week keggers on the back patio. Gradually, the parties became a little more organized and more elaborate, with deliveries of barbecue to go with the beer. Some of the best parties, say the alumni, occurred at the homes of their professors—many of whom, perhaps as a reflection of the less rigid structures of the ’70s, were a regular presence in the students’ social scene.
But it was the library, remembers Amy Conlee, that served as the unofficial center of social life. “We were there all day and all night,” she says. “It was the only gathering place. We might have 30 people (representing most of her class) in the one room. It was the equivalent of the lobby at Owen today. Someone would come in and say, ‘Let’s go to Rotier’s, or let’s go to the Holiday Inn and dance.’ It was not unheard of for someone to bring beer in there.
“We were serious students and we worked hard. We were all quite competitive and ambitious. But because we were so small and the building was so tight, it led to a family atmosphere.”
“We knew everybody in our class, and everything about them” Barton says. “Where they lived, who their boyfriends or girlfriends were, what cars they drove. We were like brothers and sisters. We kind of moved around like an ant farm.”
It was an unusual mix of ants. Some were Peace Corps and VISTA veterans. Several, like Frank Bumstead, MMgmt’72—who, a few months before applying to Vanderbilt, had been a naval officer in Vietnam, sweeping for mines just south of the DMZ—came from the military. Roughly a third were foreign students, mostly from Europe and South America.
In contrast to the average Owen student today, Barton estimates that 80 percent of his and Conlee’s class came straight from undergraduate. “A lot of us had very entrepreneurial mindsets,” says Barton, who established White Rock Capital in Dallas in 1982. “They’d have never gotten us after five years in the working world because we’d have been running our own companies.”
The school’s size, newness and quarters weren’t even its most distinguishing factors. From the beginning, Owen’s founders were intent on creating something bold and different. “The faculty didn’t want a business school,” recalls Greg Tucker, a member of that first, tentative class. “They said” (in quoting, Tucker’s voice adopts a disdainful tone), “UT has a business school.”
Photo: Dean Igor Ansoff (far right) in an early conference meeting with faculty members.
That view was succinctly expressed in the strategic plan for the school written by its original dean, Igor Ansoff: “The nation has little need for just another school of business, but…it has a great need for a new kind of school of management.”
“They didn’t even call it a ‘business school,’” remembers Conlee, who arrived six years later. “It was a school of management. They called it a ‘school of change.’”
In keeping with that idea, Vanderbilt initially offered only a master’s degree in management. At first, there were no course grades; everything was pass/fail, Tucker recalls. Even the décor of The Mortuary, featuring bright, modern colors, made it distinctive from traditional schools of business (not to mention from most funeral parlors).
The hiring of Igor Ansoff, who had earned a wide reputation as an innovator, ensured that Vanderbilt would be a different kind of school. The concept of corporate strategy—analyzing strengths and weaknesses, analyzing markets, thinking strategically—was just “good common sense,” notes Tucker.
But it was also relatively novel in 1969. “[Ansoff] had just published his book and was the darling in boardrooms across the country. He was a big star,” says Tucker. In fact, recall some alums who remember him as a captivating lecturer, whenever Ansoff entered the classroom, students would good-naturedly serenade him with the familiar refrain from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
The difference was apparent right away with the approach to curriculum. During the school’s trial year, Student Associates (as members of the initial class were called) enjoyed almost equal responsibility with professors for developing the course of study. They also enjoyed a prominent voice on the school’s governing body, the Plenary. When one student, a Frenchman, unexpectedly arrived a week before classes began—he’d been given the wrong date, Tucker recalls—“they just let him sit in the faculty meetings.”
The mix among the faculty of behaviorists, who accentuated “soft skills,” and more traditional practitioners of quantitative approaches made for an unusually diverse program. While students received a solid grounding in accounting and finance from the “quant jocks,” the behaviorists set much of the tone that alumni remember. For several professors, Tucker says, “their approach was to take off your shoes and sit on the floor.” It was, after all, the same year as Woodstock.
“I took Problem Solving I and II, where we tried to figure out how to get things done as teams by using behavioral psychology,” says Conlee. “There was another class called Innovative Behavior. The final exam involved going to the professor’s home for a big party, where you had to act the opposite of how you normally acted.”
The sense, during the first two or three years, that students not only were present at the creation but could be part of it helped set a tone that survives at Owen, even after more solid structures took shape. Frank Bumstead credits his professors with allowing him to develop a course of study in his second year that culminated with a thesis on international currency exchange.
“It was a rich, rewarding experience,” says Bumstead, whose firm provides private wealth management for high net-worth individuals, including sports and entertainment celebrities. “A lot about what Igor created was right, but it was way ahead of the curve. He placed in students’ hands a significant amount of responsibility for shaping their experience. We had the ability, within reason, to build our structure, and I found that to be invigorating.”
While the early faculty reflected differing approaches, the early students seem to concur that their professors were first-rate. In addition to the small complement of full-time faculty, many other teachers were drawn from the local business community.
Students also were treated to many well-known figures by virtue of the faculty’s range of contacts—especially after Dewey Daane arrived in 1974. “He brought in all these Federal Reserve guys,” Barton says. “He had [Paul] Volcker and [Alan] Greenspan. They came in and talked about monetary policy. It was way over our heads.”
In 1975-6, retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, formerly the chief of naval operations, served as a visiting professor and taught a course on leadership. Once, remembers Barton, someone interrupted one of Zumwalt’s lectures and whispered something in the admiral’s ear. Zumwalt left the room. When he finally returned, about 20 minutes later, he told the students he’d had to take a call from President Ford.
“There was such a diversity of faculty that we were prepared for any business environment,” says Greg Tucker. And though he was no particular fan of the “squishy” approach, he is particularly grateful to one of those courses. It was through an exercise in a behavior class that he met his future wife, Minh-Triet, MMgmt’72.
The dual, if not dueling, emphases worked for Gigi Lazenby, too. Unlike most of her Vanderbilt classmates, she continued to work part-time as an Administrative Assistant to Henry Hooker—who, along with his involvement with Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken and HCA, had interests in oil wells.
After graduation, Lazenby concentrated full-time on the oil business. Ultimately, she and a partner launched their own oil company, and she became a Board Member of the American Petroleum Institute and President of the National Stripper Well Association. “I’d introduce myself as queen of the strippers,” she laughs.
In hindsight, the history major with a limited background in math says the soft and quantitative skills proved equally important to her career. From Professor Bob Hayes, who later founded Aspect Communications, she learned how to use computers to create spreadsheets, which became essential for analyzing oil deals. “We were using slide rules when I started in 1971,” she says. For her thesis, Hayes allowed her to analyze a potential oil property acquisition for Hooker.
From Bill Dickson, who had been with GE, she learned marketing, public speaking and presentation skills. And from Ansoff she learned the art of business. “The art of negotiating a deal is reading the other person and working through that,” she says. “That’s one of the ‘people things’ I got from Owen.
“It was a great benefit to have so many professors who had been in business. They weren’t just teaching theory. We were able to be very close to them. Everything I learned there helped me.”
When Amy Conlee began interviewing for internships and jobs, recruiters posed a recurring question: “Why on earth did you go to Vanderbilt?”—a then unaccredited business school with no pedigree. She heard it again from her peers after she began an investment banking career with Morgan Stanley in New York.
If that condescending attitude nagged at Conlee and others, it also gave them something to prove. For Conlee, that sense was strengthened by her pioneer status as one of the few women at the time seeking an MBA. “I don’t think I ever had confidence before Owen,” Conlee says. “But we came out ready to go and succeed.” At Morgan Stanley, she realized she’d received as strong a business education as her peers.
Photo: The Owen tradition of informal, end-of-the-week gatherings began with the early classes.
Tom Barton had a similar experience. After graduating from Vanderbilt, he landed a job with W.R. Grace in New York. Historically, he says, Grace recruited only from Harvard, Stanford or Wharton. Of the 12 newly minted MBAs in his “class” at the company, he was the only one not from one of those three schools. “The only I reason I got the job,” he says, “was a neighbor who was on the board and put in a word for me.
“I’d had no business classes as an undergrad. Everything I learned I got from Vanderbilt. But during my time at W.R. Grace, I was promoted ahead of everyone in my group. I quickly came to appreciate how well I had been prepared at Vanderbilt.”
Somewhere in the bowels of Owen’s present library, and probably not accessible from a rolling chair, is a grainy copy of a copy of a video made by the classes of ’76 and ’77 as a spoof. Igor Ansoff portrays himself, perhaps to avoid being parodied by student actors, as the rest of his colleagues were.
In the film, one student-turned-professor sports a coin-dispenser around his belt, like the kind street vendors used to wear, and announces himself as a manager of change. The rest of the class, in a nod to the school’s original touchy-feeliness, sits in yoga positions and chant.
The faculty all turned out for the premiere of “Subway to the Stars.” At every reunion—which over half the members of the close-knit class attend—the video plays again. Every time, it provokes gapes and belly laughs and pensive smiles at the reminder of how things were, how young and full of possibility everyone was, how much fun they all had, and how far they have come. It’s a flickering buttress, from a strand of tape, against old times being forgotten.
Originally published in Vanderbilt Business Magazine (Spring 2008)