Saint Leo University has welcomed an experienced academic leader and researcher to serve as dean of the Tapia College of Business. Dr. Robyn E. Parker joined the university at the beginning of February. Parker has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, both at public universities and private institutions. Prior to joining Saint Leo, she worked at a state institution in New Hampshire, Plymouth State University. She joined Plymouth State as a faculty member and eventually moved up to full professor and dean in 2015.

The opportunity to head the business college at Saint Leo was attractive to Dr. Parker for several reasons. A self-described "builder and convener," she knew that she would enjoy leading another business college, especially given the diversity that exists among students at the Florida main campus and across the system. "There is cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic, and gender diversity. The world is that way," she said. Areas that are growing economically, and are consequently attractive to business people looking to launch careers, are likely to have a diverse population base, including some international companies, she added.

She cited several other points of appeal as well. She likes the variety of disciplines students can learn at the Tapia College. Degree programs range from traditional business-school areas, including business administration and marketing, to computer, software, and cyber skills, as well as communications management. Dr. Parker has also been involved in studying and designing online learning, so she was happy to see the many Tapia College online degree offerings, which allow students to study from anywhere.

Along with that robust online enrollment, she was encouraged to learn about the large population of adult learners studying in classroom-based degree offerings at many Saint Leo education centers. Parker has an established research interest in organizations that have both a headquarters population and a distributed base of stakeholders, so a business school with approximately 8,000 enrolled students in multiple time zones appealed to her.

After the new dean had a few weeks to meet with faculty, visit education centers, and attend some Tapia College events, she spoke about her goals for producing graduates who have developed an "entrepreneurial mindset." Some alumni may never run companies themselves, she noted. Yet it is inevitable the alumni will encounter changes in the economy, in workplaces, and the emergence of new careers during their lifetimes. Parker said the university can prepare students best by helping them become competent professionals who will be secure in their abilities to adapt and to continue learning, as entrepreneurs must.

Expectations for young undergraduates

The dean identified several standards that new bachelor's degree holders should be able to meet, and takes on the perspective of a hiring recruiter or manager when she lists the attributes that make employers want to choose certain candidates after rounds of interviews. "You want the recruiter to say, 'Wow, that person looked me in the eye and asked good questions,'" just for starters, Parker said. Once on board, new employees need to be able to propose ideas and bring evidence and data to the discussion. Demonstrating that their work has rigorous thinking behind it will help them gain the confidence of their managers.

It is not that the employee has to know everything in the first 90 days, but they have to demonstrate that they have the ability and initiative to earn the skills they don't yet possess.

Business students get to that level by studying at a college that will give them an overview of the needed business acumen supported by a strong general education program, she said. That "agility of mind" is cultivated in the liberal arts offerings where students practice in-depth reading, writing, reflecting, reasoning, and decision-making skills, she said. Consequently, she considers the liberal arts foundation, called University Explorations, very important to Saint Leo and Tapia graduates because it helps foster that creative, entrepreneurial mindset she mentioned.

"That is what a four-year institution does for you, the exposure to multiple ways of thinking, as opposed to a technical program or a community college," said Parker.  "And it's not just for the employers, it's for society. We are developing the workforce, but not just the workforce," she continued. "We are developing citizens." Graduates will be better prepared for their roles as voters, as well as members of communities and religious organizations, she said.

Building experience into coursework

Parker said she also believes strongly in providing undergraduates and graduate students with learning experiences that require them to apply the subject matter to a real–world problem or business need. Of course, she noted, internships can provide those opportunities.

Internships are required in the Tapia undergraduate sport business and health care administration programs. In other business programs, outside internships are still desirable, but optional, and perhaps out-of-reach, depending on individual student circumstances. Students who are enrolled part-time while working or serving in the military face other barriers that keep them from field internships.

In spite of all that, there are still ways colleges of business can provide students with opportunities to deepen their learning through experience, Parker said.

One of the examples she has already seen in action at the Tapia College is the involvement of students from accounting and even other business programs at tax time. The Tapia College provides a classroom at University Campus where student tax preparers volunteer to meet with area residents with limited finances who need help completing their returns. The clients come at appointed times during the early evening one day a week for free assistance. One or two volunteers who are certified by the Internal Revenue Service, and are members of a formal program called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), provide oversight, along with a Tapia College faculty member. This way, the clients receive quality-controlled assistance.  The students gain practice in meeting new clients, asking them questions about their lives and finances, and understanding the responsibility and ethics involved in making professional recommendations.

"That's a good example," Parker said. "We're going to do more of that kind of thing."

The dean cited as another positive example some Master of Business Administration courses in which students deliver a real-world project to a business partner. In fact, a local business newspaper in Virginia recently published a feature story on such a Saint Leo MBA class. There are also ways to create a project for a client that involves an entire class, she added.

The challenge, Parker acknowledged, can be for faculty and administrators to chart out with industry partners realistic expectations for the work that can be delivered, particularly in time-limited courses. It is most difficult at the beginning of the relationship. If that is managed successfully, the relationships can be fruitful for everyone, she said.

Making sure students get to collaborate with one another

Because so much work in organizations is accomplished through teams, or through input gathered from all corners of a company, the dean is also a big supporter of requiring students to collaborate on some projects or assignments. Joint assignments can also spawn friendships that enrich the students' immediate university experience, and contacts that are beneficial later to careers, she said.

Parker is so committed to this idea that earlier in her career, she and a group developed a software tool to help. The application guides student teams through the steps of setting goals, dividing labor, establishing accountability checks for one another, and giving candid feedback in a kind, businesslike manner. The application is also intended help learners avoid the reputed pitfalls of student teams. Almost everyone heard some of these gripes: that some people will fail to pull their weight; that some people will dominate and won't share opportunities; or, that the feedback that is too vague, ill-timed, mean, or non-existent. Parker wants to make some upgrades to the software tool, but encourages collaborative learning in the meantime.

Perhaps the most difficult place to foster student-to-student bonds within the Saint Leo university system is among adult learners studying at centers or online, especially if they are taking one class at a time, the dean said. The students clearly connect with the professors, she said, through classroom experiences and technology, and that is very positive. She wants to add in more student-to-student interaction, though, because of the knowledge-sharing and camaraderie adult learners could enjoy. For instance, students close to graduation and recent alumni can provide mentoring advice to those still selecting and completing coursework and searching for employment.

That need can be acute for students who are transitioning out of the military and trying to articulate the relevance of the skills and work habits they acquired in the service to civilian enterprises, she said. The dean is well versed on this point, too. Having served as a U.S. Army officer early in her own career, Parker has seen veterans encounter difficulties as they enter civilian job markets. Strong alumni connections "can become a wonderful safety net" that will help former servicemembers make fewer missteps and learn from any mistakes they may make.

This may also make students feel more a part of the university community, she said. In turn, more connections help keep up a healthy flow of ideas and experiences. "It becomes a mutually sustainable system."

Encouraging learning from more than one discipline

The dean recounted a meeting and conversation with one student that just delighted her because of the combination of studies he is pursuing: a criminal justice major from the College of Education and Social Services and a cybersecurity minor at the Tapia College. "He recognizes that technology and crime investigation go together now."  Many other combinations involving Tapia College programs can work for various students, she said. For the internationally minded, the study of business and a Spanish minor through the College of Arts and Sciences is another example. A recent session among some faculty brought about the idea of combining interests in computer gaming with marketing and graphic design, she said, so that students could think about what it would be like to start a gaming company.

Parker said she will keep emphasizing the potential benefits of exposing students to multiple areas of knowledge as a foundation for growth. "I just think there is so much opportunity with the disciplines that are here."

Highlights from Dr. Parker's background

  • Fellowship, Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership (the academy is a partnership between Arizona State University and Georgetown University)
  • Doctor of Philosophy, organizational communication, Wayne State University, Detroit
  • Master of Education, human resource development, Boston University
  • U.S. Army, earned the rank of captain
  • Bachelor of Arts, communication studies, and U.S. Army ROTC program, the State University of New York College at Oswego