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Interview with Conor Grennan, Dean of Students9 min read

Conducted via Email by Dan Gidycz, MBA Class of 2014


Dan: Can you give me a little background on you, how you ended up at Stern (the first time), and what you’ve been up to since?

Conor: I’m from the NYC area generally (upstate and then Jersey City). I went from there to the University of Virginia, and when I graduated there I moved to Prague. Mostly because I figured it would give me something to say at parties when I moved back to the US. I ended up staying in Prague (then Brussels) for about 8 years working in public policy before traveling around the world for a year. I volunteered in Nepal during that trip – again, mostly because I thought it would sound impressive to others, rather than actually wanting to volunteer – and one thing led to another and I ended up starting a nonprofit that rescued trafficked children and reunited them with their families in remote mountain villages.

I moved back to the US because I met my wife (an American), and that’s when I came back to Stern – not only to strengthen my organization, but also to make a career switch into finance.
I got a little sidetracked, though, and ended up writing a memoir instead (in the second floor reading room). That led me into a career writing and professional speaking, as well as running Next Generation Nepal, which is how I’ve spent my years since graduating in 2010.

A little research and fuzzy math tells me that while you were at Stern, you were Student Body President, had a young child, and were writing a best-seller. What advice do you have for those of us responsible for nursing nothing more needy than a bad hangover?

Everyone’s super busy first year – I was just busy with different things. I definitely went out less at night with my classmates – my late nights still involved bottles at 2 a.m. But I’ve yet to meet a first year student in their first semester who isn’t working at full capacity.

What do you think are the biggest ways Stern has changed, for the better and worse, since you graduated?

A lot has changed for the better, in my opinion. I think we’ve gotten smarter with how we do clubs and work with SGov. I have not yet found a way in which it has changed for the worse – I’m not sure if I will. The great thing about this institution is that every year we have over 3000 bright students who push us to make the place better. It makes it difficult to regress.

LAUNCH debuted just after you finished your MBA, and I think it’s pretty polarizing in the student body. I assume you’re going to be a big part of it next fall – anything you can tell us about your thoughts on the program and how it might be changing next year? Did you have a hand in its original design at all?

I was not involved in the design, but as a former student I was very happy to learn of its conception. Stern hand selects an incredible collection of minds to admit each year. We are not merely choosing student with the best grades or the most impressive work experience. We’re bringing together a group of bright, diverse and creative people in whom we see great potential. LAUNCH is our way of reminding them what can be accomplished with that potential.
But like every single program at Stern, we want to make LAUNCH better. We want to make sure we understand LAUNCH from the student perspective, and that requires student involvement. I think in the past we’ve done a good job of gathering feedback and incorporating it into the following year’s LAUNCH. This year we’ll be looking to involve students even more in the process leading up to LAUNCH as well.

Along that line, are you familiar with what we call the “LAUNCH Cliff”? (I think Cassidy’s article [Launch Cliff; Will it Happen to Me, V46N1]is a pretty good read on the subject.) Thoughts on how to manage the differences between what we hear bright-eyed at LAUNCH and the transactional nature of the bureaucracy that follows?

Even before I re-joined Stern in this role, my fellow administrators had talked to me about the challenge of the LAUNCH Cliff. It’s not surprising to me – any time you’re trying to do something new and innovative you will necessarily run into challenges. (If you don’t, it usually means you’re not being particularly innovative after all.)

I don’t think it’s going to be something we fix overnight. We are at a top business school in New York City – that means that a lot of big companies are vying for the attention of our students as early as possible in the recruiting season. OCD does a tremendous job of managing this hectic process. The purpose of LAUNCH is to give students a glimpse of the possible. I can’t help but think we often see potential in students that they themselves have yet to discover. So that does not mean not to recruit in one of the major industries. Instead, it means that for those who have a different vision or goal, that they should stay focused on that goal through the whirlwind that is the fall recruiting season. But it is also aimed at reminding students that even if they follow the most traditional of paths, this doesn’t have to be their whole life. LAUNCH is designed the way it is to be sticky, to remain with you for years to come, when you are ready to make that next bold leap in your career.

Ultimately, I believe that if our issue right now is that we are over-inspiring students, that’s the problem I want to have, and to work back from there. This community is far too talented and creative to not remind them of their potential.

Given the breakneck pace of a 20-month degree, what are your thoughts on how to build institutional memory in clubs, recruiting, and community at Stern?

This is an excellent question, and one that we’ve spoken a lot about in OSE. My vision is for our office to play a greater role in this regard. I think sometimes we find the students run their own clubs so well, for example, that it is in their best interests if OSE steps back. Often this is the case, but because of the quick turnover of students, institutional memory can be easily lost. I would love to see us at OSE playing a greater role in managing that transition, while still leaving the work in the hands of the students, where it belongs. Perhaps that means standardizing the process of transition among clubs and within recruiting. It is something at which we’ll be looking closely.

You and Charlie Murphy are probably a tossup for most-involved Stern alumnus. Thoughts on how we make the alumni community a bigger part of campus life?

The Stern alumni community is tremendous, and often wants to remain involved. Our task is to find a way to enable that without burdening them. However, it’s been my experience that when groups have reached out to me or my fellow alumni, we’ve been happy to get involved. I think we need to find a thoughtful way of involving alumni in such a way that they are able lend their expertise and experience to the very students they would love to help. The precise ways in which we do that is something we’ll be discussing a lot this summer.

What are your thoughts on faculty involvement in Stern as a community and how to enhance it?

We’ve been fortunate to attract top faculty to Stern, and we want to engage with them beyond the classroom. I’ve found many of my former professors eager to meet and collaborate with students. Being new in this role as Dean of Students, this is something that I still need to learn from the faculty as to how to best manage that engagement.

To the extent you’re willing to say much without a tenured position, what do you think of the so-called “Sexton Plan”, both expansion in the Village and the international campuses?

I’ve lived in and around NYC for much of my life, and the Village is like no place else in the world. I think to the extent that NYU can preserve and enhance that, I’m all for it. I am highly in favor of our international campuses – I believe we’re at the forefront of what is sure to be a growing trend of exporting our branded expertise in a way that will only benefit the world.

With John Sexton and Marty Lipton both stepping down in the next few years, what do you think are the big leadership challenges for NYU and Stern?

We stand on the shoulders of those who have led before us, and those are two great figures. I think NYU – certainly Stern – has excelled at selecting leaders who represent where we want the school to go. For me, the most important quality in a leader is a great listener. We have to have vision, but that vision should come from understanding our community, the world around us, and the direction of business and higher education as a whole.

What do you think are the biggest weaknesses of fresh MBAs entering the workforce and the world?

That’s hard to say – I think everyone is so different and has their own challenges. But I will say this – I would like our students to come out with a deep appreciation for the opportunities they’ve been given and the talent they’ve been blessed with. I would like to see our Stern students stand out in the workforce for being mindful of our colleagues and generous in spirit. I would like to see us carry our sense of community extend into the workplace, so that we begin to change cultures at even the toughest institutions. That to me is where we can be stronger.

What do you think of Professional Responsibility, both as it’s been taught at Stern, and as a component of a business education?

I am a firm believer in having a core class rooted in business ethics and responsibility. There is nothing that will affect the trajectory of your career more than your professional behavior. I believe that ignoring that at the business school level can only have negative consequences that can echo into the future.

Does that mean we’ve completely cracked the code on how Professional Responsibility should be taught and run? The fact that you’re asking the question clearly indicates that we haven’t. There are logistical and scheduling challenges.
But I know that the faculty that teaches the class and the folks that put it together all want the same things: to see our students succeed, and to see them contribute to making the world a better place. We will work to make it better every year.

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