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Michael Cunningham

SDSU dean seeks to graduate companies, students

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As dean of the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University, Michael Cunningham is implementing a strategy to move the business college’s U.S. News & World Report ranking into the top 50. It’s currently ranked 87.

“We’ve done the research,” Cunningham said. “We know what we need to do to improve the ranking.”

The New York native and founder of Cunningham Computer Graphics International has a doctorate in administration, leadership and technology. He wrote a business plan to take his own company international while earning his MBA at New York University in 1996. That experience, combined with having great professors and mentors, made him fall in love with higher education.

Shortly after becoming dean in June 2011, Cunningham identified three priorities: revamp the curriculum to match society today; foster the notion of entrepreneurship and innovation across campus; and graduate future leaders.

Working with alumni, business leaders and faculty, Cunningham is breaking down the silos of higher education and building an interdisciplinary approach to education that extends beyond the business college. His student-centered approach is geared toward helping students get jobs after graduating and become meaningful contributors to society.

Drawing on business college alumni 50,000-strong (70 percent of whom live in the area), Cunningham established center and department boards filled with alumni and business leaders. Tasked with determining the skills and competencies students need to be successful, the boards then met with faculty to help create a contemporary curriculum. The boards are also philanthropic and have helped supplement programs that might have been lost or nonexistent because of budget cuts.

“Through philanthropy and other programs, such as our executive MBA, sports MBA and Certified Financial Planner program, we’ve been able to supplement and grow even during these tough financial times,” he said. “Through philanthropy, we’ve raised over $16 million in the last year and a half for the school of business.”

The recently renamed Lavin Entrepreneurship Center, endowed by Alberto Culver Co. (NYSE:AVO) Chairman Emeritus Leonard Lavin, features programs, workshops, internships and events to help students translate learning into practice. Also an incubator of ideation and innovation, the center provides a network of mentors, partners, investors and resources to support multidisciplinary teams of student entrepreneurs who submit business plans for new ventures that demonstrate significant business potential.

"We want to graduate companies as well as students and have them work through that process,” Cunningham said.

Other programs include a new leadership center formed on scholarly research and best practices in organizational leadership. A mentorship program pairs students with business leaders, and The Wells Fargo Financial Markets Laboratory teaches staff, faculty, and college and local high school students about markets and financial literacy. And Cunningham is securing more internship opportunities.

"Statistics show us that 70 percent of our students who have internships get offered a job from that company after they graduate,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if we create more internship opportunities, we can get them more jobs.”

A father of three grown children, Cunningham finds inspiration in creating as many opportunities for as many students as possible.

“This is a real noble profession, and I’m just thankful to be part of it,” he said.

-James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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