Kohl's Sense of Humor Keeps All in Perspective

  • November 14, 2005

When in doubt, tell a joke. For example, take John Kohl. Please.

Humor -- you didn't think the first paragraph was funny? -- is a favorite tool for Kohl, dean of the College of Business and Economics at California State University East Bay, for everything from breaking the ice to ordinary conversations.

"You have to have a sense of humor," Kohl said. "It gives me a good perspective."

Case in point: Kohl's favorite comic strip is "Dilbert," the relentless send-up of the corporate and bureaucratic world.

"I love 'Dilbert,'" Kohl said. "You know the difference between 'Dilbert' and the real world? There is none."

That wry outlook on life will be critical for Kohl, a one-time minister and military man, as he tackles an ambitious agenda at the Hayward-based economics and business college.

The Cal State institution is sometimes relegated to the role of the "other" business school in the East Bay. The Hayward school can be lost in the dazzle that surrounds the prestigious UC Berkeley Haas School of
Business.

That doesn't faze Kohl, however, who in July took over as dean. He said he intends to sharply elevate the profile at the business and economics school, which offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Among the challenges: higher salaries for teachers, guiding a move to a state-of-the-art Business and Technology Center due to open in 2006, tying the school to area entrepreneurs and launching an economics research center.

Also ahead is a re-accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

"It's like being looked at by the IRS," Kohl said. "They want to monitor all of the vital signs and make sure you're doing everything you're supposed to do."

Accreditation was one of Kohl's main tasks at his previous school, Texas A&M International University at Laredo. Kohl led that university's business college to accreditation in "record time," said Ray Keck, president of that university.

With so much on the plate, it may help that Kohl is an early riser -- a very early riser.

"John doesn't sleep a lot," said Jacqueline Mayfield, a professor at Texas A&M International.

"My wife, Jacqueline, and I are night owls, but John is an early bird," said Milton Mayfield, who collaborated with Jacqueline and Kohl on publications over the years.

"We would work until three or four in the morning, and John would be coming in about that time," Milton Mayfield said.

That pattern hasn't changed for the 62-year-old Kohl, a former Army chaplain who reached the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve. He gets up about 3 or 4 every morning at his Danville home and is usually in the office by 7 a.m. He credits his U.S. Army background in part for his tendency to beat sunrise to the punch.

"Being up by 4 a.m. gives me my quiet time," said Kohl, who is an avid reader. "I really like to watch CNBC in the morning, just to see what's happening around the world. It gives me time to reflect on problems and issues. That's the reason I like to get to the office early. My day goes from meeting to meeting." Meetings are "a necessary evil," Kohl said.

Kohl's military background also helps him at a new job.

"I spend a few weeks getting to know the lay of the land," Kohl said. "I did the same thing with Cal State East Bay. "It comes from the Army and a basic philosophy I have that 'if you act in haste, you repent at leisure.' You make your biggest mistakes when you act hastily."

Now that Kohl has mulled the landscape at the business college, which has 3,450 students, he has begun to charge ahead on multiple fronts. One early victory: The university has agreed to add 10 faculty positions, which is a nearly 20 percent increase, according to Kohl.

Retaining teachers is another big obstacle to clear.

"The business college is not competitive in salaries at all," Kohl said. "The state universities have fallen way behind in business school salary structures." He hopes to bolster pay via fund-raising and outside financing.

Professors with Kohl's previous university believe his success in increasing salaries at Texas A&M International was a crucial step ahead for the school. Ananda Mukherji, a professor with that university's College of Business Administration, believes Kohl did well.

"He improved the salaries, created support for research activities, put a mission statement in place," Mukherji said. "But he also interacted well with the teachers. He would arrange to have faculty dinners. It helped with teamwork and camaraderie."

Kohl warmed up his audience at his first meeting earlier this year with the business and economics faculty at the East Bay university by putting up cartoons on a board. "That helped get my points across," Kohl said.

This leads to another task. Kohl wants the College of Business and Economics to more closely weave its way into the fabric of business life in the East Bay. As part of that, Kohl is setting up an advisory board designed to intensify the involvement of business executives in the
business school's mission.

"Long term, I want the university to be a much bigger contributor to East Bay businesses being successful," Kohl said. "I want to extend our partnership with business in the East Bay. We have the advisory board. But it also means that we start to think seriously about a type of center for business and economic research. This is not just blue sky. We have talked to businesses about it."

Reaching back to his background in religion, and mindful of recent corporate scandals, Kohl also wants students to learn business with a moral underpinning.

"Ethical decision-making is so much a part of how I think," Kohl said. "We must have an ethical component at our school, either in all of our courses or in a dedicated class. The attitudes of future decision makers in corporations have to change."

Kohl will likely have to rely heavily on his inter-personal skills to succeed. David Stephens, a Utah State University professor who has collaborated in writing with Kohl, believes his co-author has the right stuff for that.

"John is very affable, very jovial," Stephens said. "He is the kind of guy who invests in the other person. If you get in a conversation about him, you will wind up talking a lot more about yourself than about him. He has a penchant of preferring relationships to power as a way of getting things done. And universities are all about relationships."

And if there are some bumpy spots, Kohl can always rely on his sense of humor. Kohl, whose favorite Dilbert character is the know-it-all, pointy-haired, ignoramus of a boss, tells the story of three parrots in a pet store. One is computer literate. The second one knows how to program computers. But the most expensive one is the third parrot in the middle.

"The store owner doesn't know what the third parrot does," Kohl said, "but the other parrots call him boss."

• NAME: John Kohl

• AGE: 62

• EDUCATION: Degrees from several universities include a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University; degrees from Yale University, the University of Central Texas, the University of Colorado, Moravian University; and basic and advanced officer courses from the U.S. military.

• OCCUPATION: Business school dean

• RESIDENCE: Danville

• FAMILY: Married with two sons.


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