‘We Can Do That!’

Ronald Patten, Robert Steele, and Wallace Barnes 1977 (UConn School of Business)
From L to R: Former School of Business Dean Ronald Patten, Robert H. Steele, United States Representative for the 2nd Congressional District of Connecticut 1970-1975, and Wallace Barnes, retired Chairman and CEO of The Barnes Group, at the Beta Gamma Sigma – Alpha of Connecticut Chapter induction on May 1, 1977. (UConn School of Business)

School of Business Dean Ronald Patten Used Faculty’s Competitive Spirit to Advance Research, Ph.D. Program

Ronald Patten, the third dean of the UConn School of Business, was a bright, fair, likeable and hard-working leader, whose knowledge of business was surpassed only by his charm, and an enviable talent for coaxing the best out of people.

Meanwhile, the faculty who served during his tenure, from 1974 to 1988, were also exceptionally intelligent and enthusiastic. But the trait that most defined the professors and department heads was an unyielding competitive streak.

The combination of these two driving forces ignited some of the most significant changes in the 75-year history of the School of Business, and built a foundation that enhances the program even today.

By defining the School of Business not only as an educational powerhouse but a leading research institution, the credentials and the practice of the school forever changed. The distinction also paved the way for a doctoral program that was initiated under Patten’s tenure, but officially began shortly thereafter.

“We had good teachers, but Ron pushed to recruit people who could walk in three directions at once. He wanted people committed to teaching, research and service,” recalled Harry Johnson, associate dean of the School of Business during most of Patten’s leadership.

During a recent interview, Patten, 80, said he recognized an emerging trend in business education that was placing a higher priority on research. But he knew that ordering more work from the faculty would be a sure-fire way to make enemies.

Instead, he brought in experts from national publications, like the Harvard Business Review, and highly regarded faculty from other colleges, to speak about the growing importance of research.

“Before long, the most ambitious members of the School of Business faculty were saying, ‘We can do that!,'” Patten recalled. “Our faculty was a group of very talented people. They were doing research, of course, but not with great intensity. As Connecticut’s flagship university, we felt it was part of our mission to do more.”

At that time, the deans had great autonomy and the decision about whether to pursue a research orientation was left to them. As the research emphasis evolved, standards for faculty hiring and for tenure and promotion changed to reflect those values, ultimately changing the culture of the School of Business. In addition, companies began endowing faculty positions. Patten said at the time he didn’t think he was leading a revolution.

“It just seemed to me that it was an appropriate stage of development of the school,” Patten said. “My predecessors, Deans Ackerman and Harvey, both did a great job and I was following along accordingly with what seemed best.”

Although the emphasis on research and the creation of the Ph.D. program were separate events, Patten said the research climate had to be built before a Ph.D. program could thrive.

“The Ph.D. program, then was a natural evolution of having a research-based faculty,” he said. Patten laid the groundwork for the Ph.D. program, but had left the university before the first business Ph.D. class began its studies.

“I missed it by a little bit,” he said. “But the groundwork had been laid and the faculty was very committed to it. I knew it would go well. I didn’t leave with any remorse.”


Courting the Business Community

Patten had a great way with people, Johnson said, and that included faculty, students, staff and the business community.

“We had one employee who was ill-suited for the job,” recalled Johnson, emeritus professor of finance. “Ron called him in and said he had an opportunity for advancement. By the time the man left the office, he didn’t know he’d been demoted! Ron had a skill for handling people without getting them upset.”

One of Patten’s fondest memories was creating stronger ties with the business community throughout the state.

“In a business school, you have to be closely related to your business community. You owe that to your students. Yet few business schools across the country had that sort of relationship because they were afraid the business community would try to dictate curriculum. Of course that was nonsense!,” Patten said. “From the business community you could get ideas about where their young employees, from many business schools, had shortcomings. Paying attention to those things is very important.

“We started a program with business executives in-residence called BEST (Business Executives and Scholars Together),” Patten said. “They gave lectures, and it bonded them not only to our students, but to our school. Several times a year they would speak to student groups and host visits to their companies. Some 35 to 50 people, mainly CEOs and VPs from businesses all over the state, participated in a Board of Visitors. They came from all the insurance companies, Armstrong Tire in New Haven, PerkinElmer, Lydall and United Technologies. We shot for the biggest names we could, and almost all accepted the invitation.”

Twice a year the executives would meet with students who would makes presentations. “Students would get so nervous and they didn’t know what to talk about. I would tell them, ‘Don’t try to sound like an expert in your field. These people know much more than you do about business. Speak about something you’re an expert in. Speak about yourself, your background, what motivates you, what you’re hoping to do!’ Well, the executives loved it and it snowballed. These were the types of things that motivated me!”


Secretarial Program Ended; Information Systems Began

The business curriculum changed too during Patten’s tenure. In 1978-79 the school stopped admitting new students to the Executive Office Administration and Executive Secretarial program. The major had been offered since the beginning of the school in the 1940s, and the woman who spearheaded the program, Ruth Filip, whom Patten recalled as a dedicated educator, was retiring.

“We didn’t have a good, logical successor,” he said. “More women seemed to be going into accounting, management and marketing, viewing that as a more attractive career.”

Meanwhile, the school started up a new management information systems major in 1985-86. George Scott was the head of the department and he recognized the impact technology would have on business. “We were not pioneers in the field but we were earlier than the vanguard,” Patten said. “Thank God we had the right faculty with the skills from the onset.”

Patten has nothing but praise for his staff, without whom, he said, he would have not accomplished much. Zenon Malinowski was enthusiastic and did a great job; Harry Johnson was a hard-working and dedicated employee, “the best associate dean anywhere;” Ann Huckenbeck, assistant dean for undergraduate education, really understood the students and they looked up to her, he said. His secretary, Virginia Bergstrom, was irreplaceable; Pat Mochel kept the alumni involved and Professor Lew Mandell, a columnist for the Hartford Courant, was a “spellbinder” and they had a nice working relationship.

Johnson, meanwhile, recalled Patten as a hard worker who prized fairness in the workplace.

“He had an accountant’s mentality. Everything was documented. He had an elaborate spreadsheet of salaries. Nothing was from the hip,” Johnson said. “He was good to work with. He never cut right under the neck or yelled at you. I enjoyed working with him. I never had a moment when I thought, ‘I’d better get out of here!'”


A Very Late Night at the Office

After leaving UConn, Patten became Chief of Party for Arthur D. Little International and was stationed in the Caribbean. Two years later he became the dean of the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, where he worked for 10 years before retiring.

Now a resident of Maine, Patten said he hasn’t been back to UConn in many years. In fact, the last time he visited was to take some of his six grandchildren to the UConn Dairy Bar for ice cream.

He and his wife Shirley volunteer every year with the National Forest Service or some state park service, where they have served in many capacities, from tour guides to running a golf pro shop.

“We love it because you meet incredible people from all over the world,” Patten said. They are currently assigned to the Kartchner Caverns in Arizona.

Patten said one of the funniest stories from his time as dean at UConn still embarrasses him to this day. During a particularly lengthy meeting about tenure and promotion, Patten looked up to see Gladys Tucker knocking on the window. Gladys was the wife of Professor Edwin Tucker, who headed the business administration department, and he was in the meeting.

“It’s 3 a.m.! Why are you still there?” he recalls Mrs. Tucker saying when he opened the window.

“I had lost track of the time, and I think the department heads were too reluctant to say anything,” Patten said. “It was one of those ‘red-faced moments’ that I haven’t forgotten.”