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Close-up: Michael Cunningham

SDSU dean finds job more difficult than running a business

Working as the dean of the San Diego State University College of Business Administration is proving to be more difficult than running a business for Michael Cunningham.

“I thought running a college would be easier, quite frankly, than running a business. I thought the pace would be slower,” Cunningham said. “But what I found is it’s more challenging than running a business because you have all the intricacies of running a business, and then you have all the constraints and bureaucracy of higher education. But I’m loving it because it’s outside my comfort zone, and it’s really exciting to try to effect change.”

Cunningham celebrated his one-year anniversary as dean in June. In the past year, he faced two budget cuts and has challenged himself with improving the business school’s rankings, expanding programs and raising private funds.

Improving the U.S. News and World Report and Bloomberg rankings is one of Cunningham’s top priorities.

“Right now, for U.S. News and World Report, we’re at 86. We want to be in the top 50,” Cunningham said.

Students landing good jobs help increase those rankings, both six months after graduation and three years after graduation. Boards filled with alumni and business partners were formed in every department, center and institute to help the college of business financially, and to mentor students, prepare them for the business world, and provide internships and job opportunities.

Michael Cunningham is the dean of the San Diego State University College of Business Administration. Photo courtesy of SDSU College of Business

“It’s a holistic approach to getting our students jobs and then, in turn, it helps our rankings,” Cunningham said.

SDSU has more than 50,000 alumni, more than 80 percent of whom are still in Southern California, Cunningham said.

“We are, indeed, in and of San Diego. The network that our students get, the family they become part of, is a very close family, and we help each other out,” he said.

The college of business also increased career counseling for students and developed a Business Professional Tool Kit. The school offers resume and job interviewing skills, as well as the latest software training.

When Cunningham first came on board in June, one of the first tasks he faced was interviewing recruiters, business partners and major businesses in San Diego and nationwide.

“They said that our students are bright. They are hardworking. But yet, they needed to refine some of their communication skills and their critical thinking skills," Cunningham said. "So we decided to really take what they said seriously and give them these resources.”

Since then, recruiters who have been hiring the college’s students have been giving “great reviews.”

“Our research shows that 72 percent of the students that get an internship are offered a position from that company,” Cunningham said. “That bodes very well for the quality of our students and their preparedness for the work force. A San Diego State degree is very, very attractive.”

Graduate enrollment is up about 20 percent, and undergraduate enrollment is up about 4 or 5 percent, including transfers, he said.

“Overall, the university had 69,600 applications this year for less than 4,000 undergraduate openings. Using that metric, we’re one of the most selective universities in the country,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham worked in the past year to collaborate with other colleges on campus to help students be well-versed with different disciplines. The college of business collaborated with the College of Engineering and the College of Sciences to form incubators — the Shiley BioScience Incubator and the Zahn Center for Engineering Innovation. The college of business is also working closely with the professional studies and fine arts college to work on creativity and innovation, Cunningham said.

An entrepreneurship minor is getting ready to launch to allow students from other colleges to also receive business and entrepreneurship training.

“We’re incentivizing the students to be more cross-disciplinary so they’ll have a more solid business degree with experiences with engineering and sciences in the other colleges at the university,” Cunningham said. “There’s always a need for world-class accountants, world-class finance people, management marketing.”

A financial markets laboratory will soon be named, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Sept. 21. The lab will include 12 Bloomberg terminals and 12 additional computer terminals focused on financial markets training for faculty and students and financial literacy outreach to local communities.

A doctorate program is in the development process and will focus on big data to help companies decide what to do with data and how to best use that information in the marketplace.

The college of business also is increasing the number of students who study abroad, with 20 percent more students having an international experience. Exchange opportunities were developed with major universities around the world, including the Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, where 17 SDSU students are studying for the semester. The universities exchange students, allowing them to study abroad without additional costs.

Cunningham’s goals for next year include opening up a sales institute and revising curriculum to ensure that it is relevant to today’s marketplace and creates as many opportunities for students as possible.

The sales specialization initiative will partner with 3M Co. (NYSE: MMM) to develop a curriculum for sales professionals that combines data analytics and marketing to “give our students a leg up to go into professional selling,” Cunningham said.

After performing a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of the college of business, Cunningham said “we’re putting resources toward our strengths.”

“Our accountancy program is wonderful, so we’re supporting that in a big way. We’re creating a lot more opportunities for our accountancy students, and we’re making sure they get great jobs within the accountancy area,” Cunningham said.

The marketing area and sales, as well as entrepreneurship, are also strengths that Cunningham said the college is focusing on.

“Another strength we’re working on right now is our leadership program,” Cunningham said. “We have some of the best scholars in the country that focus on leadership, and we’re in the process of trying to raise funds for a world-class leadership institute here on campus. Our logo is 'Leadership starts here,' so we think we should have a leadership institute.”

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1 UserComments
Chris Snook 9:28pm August 22, 2012

I have known Michael for years and as a passionate alum of the MSBA program who for years has encouraged and lobbied for innovation in key curriculum disciplines like sales and leadership it inspires me to see the new direction this program is taking under his leadership! Go Aztecs

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