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Meet Sonoma State University's new business school dean Jean-Francois Coget

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Jean-Francois Coget, Ph.D., was hired last month as the new dean of the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University. He currently serves as associate dean for academic programs at the Orfalea College of Business at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

Coget, who begins his duties in July, is a native of France and former officers in the French navy. He talked with the Business Journal about how his background prepares him for new directions for Sonoma State's programs, which include the Wine Business Institute.

You have an interesting background, having moved 20 years ago from your native France to California. What brought you to the states, and specifically California?

I came to California to attend UCLA’s Anderson School of Management’s Ph.D. program. I had applied to a few universities in the U.S. and landed there because they accepted me with a full scholarship. I had never been to California before, but it was love at first sight. I never left, and feel forever indebted to the state of California for having offered me so many opportunities. Ever since, I have focused on giving back.

Why did you decide to focus your career in higher education?

I have always been enamored with books. I was a good student and had fun learning. I never thought to stop going to school as long as I could, which brought me to a Ph.D. program. I was specifically interested in psychology and business.

Having experienced less than motivating work environments through my various professional experiences, I wanted to contribute to making the workplace a more enjoyable place where people thrive. This led me to pick the field of Organizational Behavior as my specialty. I’ve researched topics such as the role of emotions and intuition in decision making, leadership, and creativity. I see all of these as related to bringing humanity back to the workplace, which is one of my life goals.

How would you describe the difference in approach to business between France and the U.S. (or just California)?

People in the U.S., and especially in California, are more entrepreneurial, less formal, and have more of a can-do attitude. I like that very much – it fits my personality. However, the French have some advantages too – they tend to be more systematic thinkers, have a wider general culture, and more sophisticated tastes and cultural references, which can be handy in some industries, such as the luxury, fashion, food, and wine sectors.

You officially begin your new role on July 1. What will be your first order of business?

The goal is to identify passions, opportunities, common values, needs and issues so as to discover a vision that can speak to the widest range of constituents.

I want to meet with all the relevant stakeholders and listen to them: faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and business partners. The goal is to identify passions, opportunities, common values, needs, and issues so as to discover a vision that can speak to the widest range of constituents. Given my interest in creativity, I am curious about whether focusing the school on business and creativity would resonate.

This angle might fit the school’s strength in Wine Business, interest in entrepreneurship, and open up new possibilities in industries such as beverage and food, experience management, and even management of the arts, which would leverage the Green Music Center on campus.

I also see great potential in developing the school’s accounting program and have already started mobilizing my contacts in the industry to that effect.

What were some key takeaways from your interview process at SSU that sealed your decision to accept the position?

SSU’s values of diversity and social justice, sustainability and environmental inquiry, connectivity and community engagement, and adaptability and responsiveness really resonate with me.

I saw evidence that these values are lived on campus, including at the top, with President Sakaki and Provost Vollendorf’s leadership. I was also really encouraged to see diversity on campus, among the student body and staff in particular. Women hold many of the leadership positions at SSU, which I think is a rising trend, and one we will see a lot of benefit from. Overall, I was inspired by the culture of openness and the potential to take the School of Business and Economics to the next level.

What are your priorities for the school of business? How do they align with how the school currently operates, and in what ways will they differ?

I plan to form a vision and amend the existing strategic plan only after holding deep consultation over the first year, so I don’t want to have priorities that are too solidified at this point.

However, key priorities I see now include streamlining existing graduate programs, and exploring avenues to increase enrollment in programs that have the potential for it, such as the wine business and accounting programs.

I also plan to connect with the community and identify areas of interest and potential for fundraising. The wine business program is the crown jewel of the school and will continue to be a prime element. However, there are other areas that could emerge as strengths for the school, such as entrepreneurship and accounting. I could also see the possibility of extending the school’s focus into areas such as experience management, beverages and food, and even maybe management of the arts. None of these are imperatives, just possibilities I’d like to explore with the various stakeholders of the school.

Do you know yet what your budget will be? If so, what is that figure?

Around $5 million in state budget, and an endowment of $3.2 million.

I understand you managed a $22 million budget at Cal Poly. What were your spending priorities and how might they differ at SSU?

The lion’s share of the budget in higher education is spent on faculty and staff’s salaries. I expect it to be the same at SSU.

Nonetheless, the OCOB at Cal Poly has twice the budget per students as compared to the SBE at SSU, thanks in part to a generous $20 million endowment from the Orfalea family. This has allowed OCOB to spend money in scholarships for underrepresented students, and develop strong student services that have helped increase professionalism, graduation rates, and ultimately placement for students. There won’t be as many funds for these at SSU. It is an opportunity for fundraising, and some creative strategizing.

You have some time before you officially start your new role. When and where in the North Bay area do you and your family plan to relocate? (Please also tell us a bit about your family.)

My wife, Lilly, two sons, Tristan – 8 years old; Max – 2 years old; and two dogs plan to relocate in Santa Rosa. We hope to place Tristan as a student at the Santa Rosa French American school, which would be a wonderful way to maintain my family’s connections to my French roots. Santa Rosa is also close to SSU, which will come in handy for me as I will have many engagements at and around the school.

What are your thoughts about the lack of affordable housing in much of the North Bay region? How will this impact your approach to recruiting students and faculty to the School of Business and Economics?

We face the same challenge in San Luis Obispo. It is a very difficult situation for which I frankly don’t have a clear answer.

Resolving the California housing crisis is a bit over my pay grade. Nonetheless, I think that one way to get over this hurdle is to create a vibrant community that is attractive enough to incite faculty, staff, and students to see the higher cost of living as a fair exchange for the culture and lifestyle it affords.

I have made the choice to be in California over the last 20 years, moving from LA to SLO, and now the North Bay Area. These are some the most beautiful and dynamic regions in the world. The cost of living reflects that, but I feel it is a worthwhile trade. That said, we also need to keep tuition affordable for students, which involves keeping operational costs down and offering scholarships to the students who need it the most. Professorships and other forms of additional stipends can also be leveraged to attract the best faculty.

You oversaw 110 faculty members and 15 staffers at OCOB. How many faculty and staff will you be overseeing at SSU?

It’s going to be a bit smaller. I understand there are currently 84 faculty in total, including 33 full-time faculty, and about 21 staff members.

What changes do you think are needed in the types of degrees and/or programs offered by business schools to adjust to today’s business world? How did you specifically address those needs at Cal Poly?

Business Schools are lucky in that, like other professional schools, they provide clear career outcomes and skills. This should help them weather to some extent the projected decline in enrollment, the so called enrollment cliff, which will hit in full in 2025.

Nonetheless, business schools need to continue to be innovative and focused on industry needs. Specialized Masters are a growing market. Business Analytics skills are in demand, but so are specifically human skills that cannot be automated, such as creativity, emotional intelligence, story-telling, and leadership.

Education will need to adapt to an increasingly diverse population of students, especially Latin-X students in California. Online courses will become an essential area of expansion. Climate change and the environment are also imperatives that we cannot ignore and must be included as part of business education.

At Cal Poly, I was involved in the creation of a specialized Masters in Business Analytics and the addition of Tech-related specializations to the traditional MBA program, the strengthening of Business Analytics offerings at the Undergraduate level, and a deepening of Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing signature pedagogical approach through industry projects among other means.

Any closing thoughts?

I am very excited to be joining the SBE at SSU. I see a lot of potential there – like a diamond in the rough. The people I’ve met so far are wonderful. There will be some issues and hardships. There always are. But I am confident we can build a thriving community around the SBE and help the North Bay Area thrive and contribute its potential to California and the world.

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