In Conversation with Dean Whitelaw and Professor Geeta Menon, Dean Emeritus

By Saurabh Kumar

Reflecting on the last decade, I sat down with undergraduate Dean Robert Whitelaw and Geeta Menon, Dean Emeritus of the undergraduate college to learn more about these two illustrious individuals and the history of TGS.

In two truly fascinating conversations, I got to hear about their journeys to Stern, perspectives on the last decade (and predictions for the coming decade), the genesis of TGS, and perhaps most importantly, their dessert foods of choice.

How long have you been at Stern?

Geeta Menon: So, I have been here a long time. I joined Stern straight out of grad school in 1990, so this is the end of my thirty-second year here. So, I’ve been here quite a long time. I had my son in 1991, so he’s been very much part of my journey at Stern—the whole fabric of being in and of NYU and New York City.

Robert Whitelaw: I am the Dean of the undergraduate college. I have actually held that position since 2019, but I have been at Stern much, much longer than that…I just celebrated 30 years at Stern, so I joined Stern in January of 1992.

I came here straight out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford where I did my Ph.D. in Finance, so this was my first academic appointment, and I joined the Finance department. By training, if you will, I am a Finance academic—a Finance researcher and teacher—and I am still in the Finance department, although I am sitting in the undergraduate college Dean’s office right now. 

What is something about Stern you don’t think you could find somewhere else?

GM: I love this place. I lived in Mumbai for a long time…and I love Mumbai. I think when I was graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—which was a little bit of a shock to me to be going to Urbana-Champaign from Bombay—I was really happy to get an offer from a school in New York City. Coming to New York City meant the world to me, and you know, I love being in a city.

At that time, NYU was trying to find its footing and trying to establish itself, and it seemed like a great place to be an assistant professor. Washington Square Park was not safe at that time, so I was told not to walk through it in the night, and there were lots of things about New York City which were kind of edgy, but I felt like coming from Mumbai it was not a surprise.

The Marketing department at Stern has very much been my home because I work all kinds of odd hours—I used to bring my child to work and I have all kinds of puzzles in my bottom drawer of my filing cabinet even now…it’s very much my home. It’s where I grew up as a professional.

RW: I love a lot about NYU and NYU Stern. I love New York City, but I was thinking about this a little bit, and I think it’s going to sound slightly clichéd…when we talk about the undergraduate student experience here at Stern, we tend to talk about it in the context of five pillars—the five themes.

The one that I have in mind is the Community pillar. And, so, I think a lot of the reason why people stay at Stern for a long time is because of the community. For me, when I started—and the reason that I came to Stern—was the Finance department. I was a newly-minted Ph.D. student, and I was looking for a research and teaching community—a set of fellow scholars—where I could flourish, where I could engage…the community at that point was really the Finance department for me. It was the prospect of interacting with this great Finance faculty. And then, over time, the community changes, so it expanded to the faculty more broadly; now I am deeply immersed in the undergraduate college community.

Could you share a memory from the last few years that really defines the Stern experience?

GM: One of the great things about the students that Stern attracts is that they are genuinely looking to educate themselves not just in business, but in life, and I think that is a very, very fundamental difference between the students that come to Stern and the students that go anywhere else because the Stern experience is fantastic but at the same time, being in the City is what adds to the life element.

I just find the student body really inspiring because there is something that sets them apart from everyone else. 

RW: First, let me say the past few years have been difficult, challenging, strange—it has been unusual times, I am sure I don’t need to tell you that…I really distinctly remember being back in class for the first time. I teach in the Fall, an undergraduate Finance elective Portfolio Management, and I walked into that classroom September 2nd of 2021 and I’ve got my mask on—all the students have got their masks on—and people were just so happy to be back in the classroom. The students were hugging each other, everybody just seemed so excited, so engaged. Again, it weirdly comes back to the community.

I think we tried really hard to try and let students make progress on their degrees and, you know, opn remote classes. But, in all honesty, while yes, I can teach portfolio theory on Zoom, there is nothing like actually being in a classroom and engaging with students.

How has the school changed in the last 10 years, and what can we expect from the next 10?

GM: I think the school has covered amazing ground in terms of its global presence…It’s kind of ironic that the name is New York University which is so defining but at the same time it’s in and of the world…I teach brand strategy, and I love that tension.

And, I think the technology has changed so much that the digital space has become so important. So, some of the changes might be even in the kind of students we attract, the kind of faculty we attract. There are more faculty now interested in data-driven decision making and big data and visual technology, and there are students who are also craving that.

In the next ten years, I see a huge explosion in the technology education between what we’ve seen with all the stuff the students are doing and all the stuff the faculty are involved with, and there’ll also be this focus on social responsibility, which has always been a core strength of our undergraduate and our graduate programs.

RW: There have been a ton of changes…we introduced the new Business, Technology, and Entrepreneurship degree program. The first entering class entered in the Fall of 2021, so we’re just about to welcome our second entering class into that program. Also, the FYLO program, which is the First Year in London Opportunity. We currently have 30 first year students in London in the B.S. in Business program—you probably don’t know that because you’ve never even seen them! Next year, they will be here, starting in the Fall they will be back here as Sophomores. 

As the world evolves, hopefully the program and the academics evolve as well. Sustainable Business is a really nice example of that. That was a concentration that was initially introduced just as a co-concentration—that is, you couldn’t take it on its own—and is now a full concentration.

The bottom line is I think we’re changing all the time, but we’re changing in response to what we see as, well, the needs of the community, the needs of the employers, the needs of our students, and that’s what makes it interesting. 

I like to say ‘the future is hard to predict,’ what we are trying to do is to be responsive to the needs of employers, the needs of our students…we are both responding to but also forecasting what the future holds, and then trying to have a world-class business education that is consistent with that world. 

How have you interacted with The Gould Standard in your time as Dean?

GM: I used to do this thing called ‘Lunch with the Dean’ with the students, so we used to go for lunch, and I used to go with five to ten students…and I was just trying to get to know the undergraduate students back when I started in the role in 2011…and one such lunch had this undergraduate student called Lin Ling. And so, Lin said it would be so cool if you could actually hold a paper in your hands to read again—so it is like going backwards in time, and I said tell me more. And so all of the students—not just Lin, but whoever else was there at lunch that time—they all kind of chimed in and said ‘Oh, that’s such a great idea!’

It was very appealing to me to have a student newspaper that was a hard copy…I was all excited about it, so the genesis was a lunch where we were just talking about this, that, and the other. And, one of the things I really wanted to do as Dean…was build community.

That was the genesis of The Gould Standard. I just felt so proud to see the first copy of it. I went and held it up in our faculty meeting…it was a point of pride. I really used it to enhance the warm feeling of Stern.

RW: There are a couple things I get out of an article—why it’s interesting and why I find it enjoyable to read. One is I love to see the student perspective on current events…I think that it’s really good for me to see how they’re thinking about it and see current events through that lens.

The other thing is—I think useful to me but more useful to us generally in the undergraduate college—the insight on the student experience.

How has the paper played a role in the Stern community over its history?

GM: I think the role that The Gould Standard plays is to highlight what students are thinking about…having students writing good articles about current topics automatically sparks conversation. 

RW: We talk a lot about IDBE or community, but a lot of that is about having diversity of perspective, so the hope is that The Gould Standard is another instrument for people to see some of the diverse perspectives that are out there. And those could be perspectives on Stern life…even with current events. It generates conversation, it generates debate, and it lets people know that there are diverse perspectives out there. 

What is your favorite dessert?

GM: Oh gosh—I’m allergic to eggs, so that automatically takes off so many desserts, and I love sweets, so anything that does not have egg becomes my favorite. So, if you give me a good brownie-type dessert that doesn’t have eggs, I’m all for it.

RW: There’s a tradition in my family that you help in the preparation of your birthday cake…this year we made coconut cake So I’m in the process of eating my way through a giant coconut birthday cake, which I’ve gotta say is actually quite good.

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