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Cornell's hotel school continues to show the way for tomorrow's hospitality executives through Dean's Lecture Series

Monday September 21st, 2009 - 3:44PM

It’s the first day of class at Cornell University and its prestigious School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, NY, and the school’s home, Statler Hall, is buzzing with students as the realities of a new school year and the memories of summer switch mental positions.
Nowhere is that psychological transition more obvious than on the faces of the freshmen. You can spot them a mile away, shiny new backpacks, apprehensive gait and all.
It is these freshmen that represent the future leadership of the hospitality industry. Yes that’s an easily-stated, eye-rolling cliché for any freshman class in any school. But when it comes to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration students, it’s actually born out to be true.
Such a claim escapes hyperbole in the case of Cornell’s top-rated, world-renown hotel school upon a quick glance at the diplomas adorning the office walls of countless hospitality industry executives. After all, there’s a good chance they display the Cornell seal. Bob Alter and Art Buser of Sunstone Hotel Investors? Graduates. Bjorn Hanson? Graduate. Simon Turner of Starwood and Steven Goldman of Hilton? Graduates. Lee Pillsbury of Thayer Lodging Group, Monty Bennett of Ashford Hospitality Trust and Remington, Mark Woodworth of PKF Consulting, Steve Rushmore of HVS, Andrew Tisch of Loews Corp., Gary and Steve Mendell of HEI Hotels and Resorts, Art Adler of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, Mike Cahill of HREC, Michael Medzigian of Watermark Capital Partners? All graduates.
In exploring the capabilities of the 87-year-old School of Hotel Administration, the reasons for the seal’s proliferation in these executives’ offices become obvious. Along with the rigorous business, yet hospitality-intensive, education students receive, there’s also such programs and tools at their disposal as the Center for Hospitality Research; the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship; the Center for Real Estate Finance; the Culinary Institute of America Alliance; the Statler Leadership Development Program, which utilizes the connected Statler Hotel as a living, learning laboratory for the student staff; not to mention the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
While all of these educational components will prove invaluable to the students as they are eventually transformed into hospitality executives, it is the lecture series that will first prove to them, on only their second day of class, the executive potential they each have. They’ll see their potential as the 47-year-old lecture series—a mandatory one-credit class for all freshmen and transfer students in the fall—brings before them in person as guest lecturers many of those that went from wide-eyed Cornell hotel school freshmen to CEOs. After all, sometimes seeing is believing.
“A speaker comes in on Thursday and we have them first meet with students and faculty over dinner. The next day, they’re in a series of discussion groups and then they provide a major lecture in our major lecture course. The course is primarily for our freshmen and transfer students, but is also open to any other student who wants to take it or attend,” explained the hotel school’s dean, Michael Johnson, who, as per tradition, delivers the first lecture in the series each year. “They deliver a lecture on not just their company, but how they got to where they are. You’ve got these 200-plus freshmen and transfer students sitting in the auditorium and the primary thing they’re thinking is, ‘How in the heck do I get from here to being a CEO of a company like Hilton or Starwood?’ And so when we prep the speakers, we say remember that’s what’s going on in these students’ minds. They want to hear about your company and your business strategy, but they also want a personal lesson of how you went from being an 18-year-old freshman to being the CEO of a company.”
Art Buser, president and CEO of Sunstone, made that journey and showed students all of the related possibilities last year during his series lecture. He revealed a path littered with 30 different jobs, from housekeeper to bartender to even bouncer plus all of the many real estate and hotel operations positions he tackled, Johnson noted. “[It all] eventually led him to becoming the CEO of a major investment company. And the point he was trying to make was this is not a linear path,” said Johnson, the dean since 2006. “You need to go out there and gain experience and the next experience you’re going to get may not be the one you expected, but it just has to be the one that will contribute to, ultimately, where you want to go. It’s not going to be a clear path. It’s a journey. It was a whole bunch of experiences in Art’s case that led ultimately to him becoming the CEO, so the lecture series is really around this notion of bringing these leaders back, helping the students learn what these journeys are like and learning about the diversity of the industry.”
When Johnson speaks of diversity he speaks of not only a diverse background for each lecture series speaker but the diversity of the exact industry he or she represents. Consequently, he said, because the hotel school focuses on the hospitality industry at large, students are exposed, through the lectures, to such segments of the total industry as hotels, restaurants, cruises and spas as well as the different components within each of those realms, including marketing, financing and operations. In examining the lecture lineup for this year the diversity becomes obvious, as the lecturers will include Steve Goldman, president of global real estate and development for Hilton Hotels Corp.; Andrew Tisch, co-chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee for Loews Corp.; and Roger Blackall, the director of hotels and the hospitality division at Premier Group WLL in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
And those are just the Cornell graduates this semester. The lineup, as always, includes major CEOs that did not walk the halls of Cornell’s hotel school. Cornell, of course, forgives this prestigious group that will include this year Paul Klaassen, founder and chairman of the board for Sunrise Senior Living; Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of the board and member of the office of the president at Loews Corp. and chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels; Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods, Inc.; Sally Smith, president and CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar; Frits van Paasschen, president and CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide; Rosalyn Mallet, president and CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality, LLC; Philip Wolf, president and CEO of PhoCusWright Inc.; and Steven and Michael Roberts the president and principal and chairman and CEO, respectively, of the Roberts Cos.
According to Johnson, the selection of the Roberts brothers was strategic and timely, as many of the selections tend to be. “We think in times like this you have to be entrepreneurial. So a good example of that is the Roberts brothers. They’re St. Louis-based developers and very entrepreneurial. They have more of a medium-size company, but they’re a great example of someone out there who’s a bit more flexible, entrepreneurial, developing new concepts and some of our alums are there working for the Roberts brothers, who are not alums, but they like our graduates.”
Johnson asserted that many hospitality companies hold Cornell hotel school graduates in high regard and even high demand [see sidebar] because of the experience they arrive with at their new jobs. They are a polished bunch. And a small, but significant part of that degree of polishing even incorporates attire. Indeed, the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series even has a dress code for the students that demands a tie and slacks for men and what amounts to similar attire for women. Jackets are also strongly suggested. Those showing up dressed inappropriately are simply asked to leave. Furthermore, the class is graded on such personal presentation as well as personal conduct in the class (i.e., paying attention). The first lecture this year spelled all of this out for the students, fashion show and all.
The impact of this lecture class is so profound, some students even take it twice. Ben Okon, a senior who will graduate from the hotel school in 2010 and is currently the student restaurant manager at the Statler Hotel, is among the second timers. “Yes, you get to hear the stories, but the best part about [the course] is really how integral it is to the transformation you go through when you go to this school,” he explained. “My favorite part of this school is by the time you start and the time you stop, you transform into someone that’s much more of a person who’s capable of interacting in a professional atmosphere. And the first step of that is throwing a freshman in the class who’s never worn a suit in their life and telling them you’re going to meet a CEO today so you better dress up. And you have to listen to the CEOs talk about their lives and you have to come up with questions that you have to ask them. It’s the first step to learning how to interact with these people. You meet more and more of these people and you continue to grow and by the time that you’re out you’re much better able to interact and much better able to have a conversation with them versus perhaps others that have never worn a suit and have never met a CEO.”
If the past history of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration holds true, there’s a good chance Ben Okon is now destined to be among the next. 

—Christopher Ostrowski