top of page

35: Sulin Ba on Serving the Underserved to Transform Lives.

A peer-to-peer discussion with the Dean of DePaul University's Driehaus College of Business.

Deans Counsel Podcast

In a conversation designed for academics championing the underserved in higher ed, Dr. Ba is uniquely positioned to lead a business school whose enrollment is 40% first generation students and 45% students of color.

“We can use education as an engine for social mobility…that changes people's lives.” Said Ba

Dr. Ba shares how the Driehaus College of Business is successfully building a deeper sense of community on campus with current students and the more than 85,000 alums living and working near Depaul in the greater Chicago area.

Central to Dr. Ba’s vision at Driehaus was rethinking career development for students and graduates. Listen as Dr. Ba details the changes to curriculum and co-curricular activities making the greatest impact on career outcomes. And driving change comes with its own challenges. Dr. Ba offers insights and lessons learned building an effective leadership team by shaping the advisory board for impact and lasting success.

“This is an opportunity for us to really bring in some fresh talents…and to establish that strong connection with the business community.” Said Ba

And finally, Dr. Ba shares her experiences collaborating with campus leadership on critical challenges including budget shortfalls and how she and her team wisely navigated the issues while minimizing the impact on students, staff, faculty and alums.

Transforming lives and serving underrepresented populations is critical for all of us in the academy. Go deeper as Dr. Ba provides first-hand experiences and demonstrated outcomes others schools can model at their own campus.

Listen to Episode 35 for guidance and advice

Listen to Episode 35 here -

About Dr. Sulin Ba:

Sulin Ba was named Dean of the Driehaus College of Business in July 2022. Prior to joining DePaul University, she was the Treibick Family Endowed Chair at the University of Connecticut School of Business, where she served as the school’s first Associate Dean of Academic and Research Support. 

An award-winning researcher and teacher, she is equally passionate about building connections to the business community and using education as an engine to drive economic development and social mobility. Since joining DePaul, Ba has built community with the Driehaus Cup, revamped the first-year curriculum, and enhanced the Career Management Center. She has also made engaging with our alumni community a priority for the college, not only here in Chicago but also around the country and the world.

During her tenure at UConn, she successfully championed multiple cross-campus collaborations, worked with state and local governments and the corporate community, and represented the University of Connecticut in state-wide initiatives focusing on entrepreneurship and innovation. She was a founding member of the board of directors for Innovation Place Hartford, an initiative jointly funded by the State of Connecticut and other public and private sectors to catalyze technological innovation.

Photos courtesy of Depaul

Show Transcript

Dave 0:13

Welcome to Dean's Council podcast aimed at supporting university leaders holding one of the more critical jobs on a university campus. Your panelists can Kring gemellus and Dave Ikenberry engage in conversation with highly accomplished Dean's and other academic leaders regarding the ever complex array of challenges that Dean's face and one of the loneliest and most unique jobs in the academy. Our guest today suelen bar was born and raised in China and came to the US to earn her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. She started her career at the University of Southern California, but ended up spending 20 years at the University of Connecticut, where she served in various leadership roles. Growing up in China as part of the minority population in that vast country gave her a unique understanding of the challenges that first generation and underserved students face as they go through college. As such, he is uniquely positioned to help the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University as its Dean, where 40% of the students are first generation learners. And more than half are students of color. suelen shares with us her advice for serving this unique student population since joining DePaul in July of 2022. That some of the targeted solutions she and her team developed to get students ready to join the workforce. She also comments on the advantages of working in a community like Chicago, which has such a high density of DePaul graduates, and how she leverages her advisory board to build corporate relationships.

Ken 1:48

So we'll kick it off. We're pleased to have with us today on this Dean's Council podcast suelen Bach who became dean of Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in July 22. Welcome suelen

Sulin Ba 2:08

Thank you, Ken, it's a great pleasure to join this.

Ken 2:12

You know, we were thinking since it's perhaps still fresh in your memory, what it is in your personal history and interests that brought you to this unique opportunity in a historic University in a very vibrant city populated by a fairly competitive landscape in terms of business education. So hearing sort of what got you there, and what's keeping you there will be certainly of opening interest us. Thank

Sulin Ba 2:42

you, Ken. So, you know, when I was approached about this opportunity initially, you know, I was I was thinking about, you know, that you mentioned vibrant city, Chicago, it's a great opportunity for business schools, I think these days, right. But as I was going through the process, talking to more people from the past, what really stood out and what made this opportunity really appealing to me was how he actually how the Post story resonated with my own personal journey, my own personal story. I came from China, born and raised there and came to the US for grad school. But I sort of minority background, right, growing up in China. My father was the first person to go to college from his entire village and very rural village, we, we are actually ethnic minorities in China. So he was the first person to go to high school first person to go to college, from the entire village. And because it was the entire village people were all minorities. At that time, there was no high school in his village. He really had to overcome tremendous obstacles to even attend high school, he walked four and a half miles each way every day to go to a high school, but because of the education, he pursued, he opened up doors not just for himself, but also for his children. Right. So, you know, because of what he did, I came to the US and you know, I, I got a good education in China and then came to the US for grad school. And as I became older, I would say that part of my family's history seemed to play more more, more prominent role in how I thought about my careers, and how I started to reflect the power of education. So even when I was at UConn towards, you know, when I was serving as an associate Then I started paying attention to, you know, how we can use education as, as an engine for, you know, social mobility, frankly, right how that changes people's lives. And come back to Paul. So while I was going through the interview process, I met with lots of people and that aspect of the PA, you know, serving the underserved, using education to transform so many lives of first generation college students, that became very loud and clear. And it was a really impressed me how much people here care about that mission. And, you know, I just found that tremendously appealing, and that resonated so strongly with me. So combine that with, you know, with what the city of Chicago offers a business school, how those opportunities that come with being in the center of a big, vibrant city, with a very, very robust business community. So they these things, just made it seem like an easy choice to come to DePaul. Oh,

Jim 6:12

have you been able to communicate your background and who you are to these 5000 students that you're in charge of, that can see the opportunities that are in front of them, similar to the way you saw the opportunities in front of you, I mean, for a student coming out of a situation similar to yours, and there's so many of them, as we know, that then become great successes because of this, for them to emulate your path, or at least know that there's a path there? How have you been able to communicate that? And and have you communicated that in such a way that they really understand who you are? Because you are unique in that regard, in so many respects?

Sulin Ba 6:56

Well, I think, you know, one thing is DePaul is known for educating first generation college students. So in addition to my own story, we've had so many alumni who have, you know, gone through our programs and gone around to very successful careers, and they are giving back right, many of them come back to speak to the class, you know, in the classroom, they come back to become mentors for the students. And we have, you know, lots of other events, where we showcase our alumni and their success stories. Just recently, someone on my business advisory council actually, you know, made a very substantial donation to our college. And, you know, he earmarked, very big portion of that shoe programming specifically designed to help first generation students, and he said he was a first generation student without DePaul, without the education, he got, you know, from DePaul, he would not have been able to, to do what he has, you know, done, and he will not be where he is in life today. And so, you know, through all these things, success stories of our alumni, and I talk to students all the time, I'm not shy about telling them, you know, about my personal background, I so I, I tell the story. I you know, I hope that my story can inspire more students. Just last week, we had doughnuts with the dean sessions. So I met with lots of students, and now you shared the story again, right. So, you know, several students emailed me afterwards, they said, you know, just hearing that, and seeing this kind of examples, it gives them a lot of hope. Right. So they know they, they have a bright future ahead of them as well. So but I think the key really is showcase our alumni success.

Ken 8:51

So in your nearly 20 years, you can pet a number of different roles, both internal and external. I mean, the work you did as a founding board member of innovation, plays Hartford, some of your work with the state and multisector had you fairly external as well as internal but your internal role leads for a long period of time as the Associate Dean for Academic and Research Support, had you? I'm sure I'm very close to the faculty as well. So we're very well prepared. However. What did you What have you learned that you weren't as prepared for Where have the stretches are new learning has been

Sulin Ba 9:33

coming to the PA? Yeah. So you know, the PA UConn? They're two very different universities. One is a big flagship public university, obviously, right, the other one, you know, private university very end where people always the Catholic University as well, you know, there's a very prominent mission component. So if you look at this student population. So the two universities, student populations are actually quite different. So you can add the median family income for an A for UConn students is about 20% higher than the median family income for the PA students. A lot more students at UConn come from the top 20% of the, you know, income distribution. Right. So compared to DePaul, so over 40% of our students at DePaul are first generation college students 45% of the students in our business school are students of color. So many of them, you know, they because of this different background, different family background. So why first came, you know, we just came out of COVID, right, July 20 2002. So life was starting to get back to normal. But, you know, how do we really engage our students. And that was a big challenge. You know, because of the very different student background, I had to rethink about what kind of opportunities we can create for our students to take advantage of the services we offer the you know, opportunities we bring in. Many of the PA students say work, you know, they work, even undergrads, a lot of them do, you know, full time jobs, actually. So that was a mentality switch for me to think about how we prepare our students for long term career success. Those activities that I was familiar with, when I was at UConn, they don't necessarily work here, right with this population. And you can, you know, is a very residential college, college town, most students stay on campus. And that's not the case at DePaul. And you know, we're also in a big city, a lot of students commute, right? So to think about our overarching goal of helping our students long term career success, we really had to come up with new ways of engaging this, this population.

Jim 12:21

So you really had to you had to build, when you just had to build community as opposed to inherit community. As you did the Yukon, Yukon, the community was right there. And all right, you had to build the community and get the students to somehow I mean, here, they are working. Here they are working. So the minute they they come in, they run the class, they leave, they're either coming in or going back, it's hard to build something like that. That's a very difficult thing to do. And yet, DePaul has such a great reputation as a place for that exact thing. Are there any specific things that you did to build community?

Sulin Ba 12:59

So, you know, multiple things, right? One? Yes. You know, we had to rethink about our career support for students. So that you know, is in instead of, okay, offering career opportunities as an extracurricular or, you know, outside of the class time, now, we had to think about how to build in bed, all those opportunities in to the academic curriculum. So that, you know, when the students are going through their core courses, for example, and they already learned about various stages of, you know, preparing for their career, getting internships, you know, you know, how to network with companies. So, another very significant thing that we did was actually we revamped our undergrad core curriculum. So we very much had this community building aspect in mind. So in the core, there was there's a course business one on one, fundamentals of business and entrepreneurial thinking. So what we did was okay, as part of that core course, every single, you know, freshmen coming in or transfer students coming in, they have to take that course. And as part of that, they work in teams, and they come up with an idea for a business an idea, you know, for product or for services, etcetera. Then within that section students compete against each other right, then each class section has a winning team. And then we bring all the winning teams across the 10 You know, eight nine sections that we offer each quarter together for a big event, which we call the Driehaus cup. We sort of built it as Harry Potter meets. Shark Tank can now be event driven And that has generated tremendous enthusiasm among our students. So every quarter, they're you know, eight 910 sections of one on one offered a culminates in this college white, you know, Driehaus cup computation. And our students present present in front of three 400 people, we have judges who are from our corporate sponsors, right. And the winning teams, they get a scholarship, they get their team name, you know, on the plate engraved on the Driehaus cup. And that has done wonders for our community building effort. And this has become a signature event for the whole college this, so many students talk about and so much enthusiasm. Great idea. Oh, yeah. So we actually won an award for this from the Mid American business Dean's association for this innovation. So they recognize how we have used the to transform our first year student experience.

Ken 16:11

Have you been able to take advantage of the location as it relates to alumni engagement? I would think that there's coming out of COVID, there's a lot of neglect that might have taken place. What does that look like in terms of your own allocation of time? And commitment?

Sulin Ba 16:29

That's an excellent question. So a lot of external meetings. You know, as I came in, I said to the, to the college, right, if we would look at what unique assets do we have, right? It's the community, the business community around us. It's an alumni network around that. So the here is another thing that, you know, really distinguishes our business school from some of our neighbors on the south side of Chicago and North Side of Chicago. I won't name the name of the schools, but our most of our grads, they want to stay in Chicago. So we have close to 80,000 alumni in the Chicagoland in the broader Chicagoland every place you go. Okay, every company you talk to, they are DePaul alumni. And they feel a very strong sense of affinity with the college with the university. So I sit that is an incredible asset for us. And we must take advantage of that. Right? So yes, coming into the cities. As a new dean, I've done a lot of outreach. And the community is very welcoming. I'm very receptive. So they've really embraced us and some of the innovations that we want to pursue. So it's been really encouraging

Jim 17:56

80,000 alumni in the city is a gigantic number eight is yes, that's just spectacular, that you've been able to do that. And the draw, just to help your students out terrific is that

Sulin Ba 18:11

I don't know whether you realize, Jim, our person school actually is one of the 10 oldest business schools in the in the country. I didn't know that. Yeah. And obviously, we're also the largest Catholic university in the country. So that's why we have such a strong and big alumni network.

Jim 18:31

That's just terrific. Tell us a little bit about your, your advisory board. And you know how you've put that together and where that's helped, and where you might have done a better job there?

Sulin Ba 18:43

Oh, you know, that is such a great question. Because coming in, one of the first things I did was to revamp our business advisory council, it was a very large council, and many people had been on the council for decades. And then they, you know, you initially they were active than they were, you know, not as involved anymore. And so I said, Well, this is an opportunity for us to really bring in some fresh talents, right. And, you know, to establish that strong connection with the business community, because a lot of the advisory council members, they have retired, right, so that link to the business community, over time became weaker. When I first came the first month, I brought in seven new business advisory council members, we formed an executive committee, as well. So it's, there's a core leadership group, right. And this has been such a tremendous asset for us, that the executive committee is very, very devoted, very energetic and has lots of wonderful ideas. And you know, they've showed their impact right away. I mentioned this Driehaus Cup competition we, you know, we started last year and we were looking for corporate sponsors. Right. So one of the executive committee, members of our advisory council, she brought in, you know, our first sponsorship for Morningstar. So she's the see at Morningstar. And she brought them in to be the first corporate sponsor. And once you land the first one, then there are other companies that are more interested, right, more willing. So they've been a tremendous asset.

Jim 20:33

I have a quick follow up on that. How did you how did you exit those older retired guys? I mean, it's hard to fire volunteers. How did you kind of exit those those people and bring the new ones on? You know, so that you didn't continue that? The same issue that you had with some that have been around for years? And years? And years? I mean, that's the hard part.

Sulin Ba 20:58

Yes. So that was a very delicate process. We elevated some of those long term members to emeritus status. And then for some of them, we send a letter for one year term. And you know, and people recognize what we were trying to do. And so after that random letters went out, you know, some people reached out and say, Yes, I, you know, I think it's time for me to step down. And you know, it's just overall, all those members have been so gracious, and I just cannot express enough my gratitude for their, you know, for their service to our college.

Ken 21:50

without breaching any competences. You've come in, you've inherited an administrative team, how have you sized up your, your team? What do you what are you? What have you been able to do? And how are you thinking about optimizing your support?

Sulin Ba 22:10

So I came in the first year, the Powell made national headlines, that we had a projected budget shortfall of $56 million, right. And each college was given target for budget cut. And naturally, the business school, I think, among all the colleges got the biggest target number. So there were some, you know, tough decisions to make. One thing I felt strongly was overall, I had a very strong team, I don't want to, you know, I didn't want to behave like something's they came in, oh, I want everybody to be new, right? I value, the experience, the collective experience and, and expertise on my leadership team. But I did have to, you know, sort of reorganize a little bit. So one department head was stepping down. And so an Associate Dean went back to the department to become the chair. And I did not reveal that role. we reorganized the structure and the portfolio, so that I reduce the number of associate Dean's from four to three, so that you know how a little bit with fulfilling our target budget cut. But overall, I feel really good about this team. I think, you know, it's a very dedicated team. Quite a few department chairs actually were new. So we have six departments or slash schools, right? So four of the chairs were new when they came in. So everybody was very energetic and really wanted to make a difference. So I would say, overall, the team worked really well.

Jim 24:14

How How has your senior leadership at the University helped you get acclimated into this position? And have there been any any bureaucratic barriers that you've had to jump over the center? That Are we know, we all know we're out there, and it knows it has been a relatively smooth ride from that standpoint.

Sulin Ba 24:38

So I think, you know, the President and Provost have been very helpful. Our president is also new actually joined the PA a month after I did so it was also a learning curve for him and I think we were learning about the PA at the same time. The Provost had been here for a few years and just, you know, extremely supportive, I think all the deans feel that, you know, we are very comfortable talking to her about different issues. Right. So another thing is I think it's been just so wonderful. Yes, the Dean's group. It's a very supportive group. We have our own, you know, we get together for for lunches or, you know, cocktail hours, to share different concerns to seek each other's advice. And that has been tremendously helpful. So I don't feel like you know, being a dean is a lonely job, but because of this supportive group.

Ken 25:50

On a related note, you had a reputation, you had experience with a lot of cross campus collaboration and interdisciplinary collaboration. Have you been able to continue to underscore and emphasize some of those values for sort of unleashing the synergies of the business school?

Sulin Ba 26:14

Yes, absolutely. I love collaboration. So, you know, collaboration, there's in, within college across department, I think that is already, you know, something very important, right. And then also cross campus collaboration with other colleges. They always took great pride in doing that when I was at UConn, and they tried to bring that spirit to DePaul, and our colleagues have been very receptive. So within the college, we've developed a brand new major with undergrad major business analytics. And it's not done in the same way, like typically a major is housed in one department, right? So I want this to be truly interdisciplinary, Major, that all departments will collaborate, contribute. So we developed launched this major in no time, the in record time, the representatives from different departments came together. And, you know, just in the first year, we already attracted lots of students. So that's four was when we launched it. And across campus, we worked with our Jarvis College of Computing, and digital media, we launched double sort of a joint major with them, computer science and economics. And that's attracted lots of students attention as well. So we continue to explore different opportunities with other colleges. And interdisciplinary collaboration, I think is a big theme for the PA. Yeah.

Jim 27:54

Well, I just want to thank you for the time you've taken with us, this has been just fantastic to hear your path and you arise, and now to watch you with this brand new canvas that you get to paint on. And the experiences you brought to the school phenomenal. And those those students are very, very lucky, very lucky. And we really appreciate the time you've taken with us who has been terrific. Thank

Sulin Ba 28:19

you. Thank you. i Yeah, I feel very fortunate that I, you know, I am at a place where people care deeply about the students about the

Jim 28:30

wish everybody was thinking that way and education right now. Okay, focus on the kids and focus on their education. That's why we're there. Right. And

Sulin Ba 28:39

one thing I just want to make one final plug, you know, is the poll. Yeah, I mentioned that we bring lots of first generation college students in right. But of course, you know, access is one thing, but but outcome is important, right? Success is extremely important. So he Paul, actually, according to one particular ranking on social mobility that looks at the percentage of colleges or universities, students who are core Pell Grant eligible, you know, what the graduation rate is? And five years out what their earnings outcome? Yes. So this ranking is all based on, you know, objective data, the PA is ranked number three in the country among all private universities. So we're really proud of that. And we continue to push for, you know, to do more on this front, and that's something I think is serving as our guiding star. Yep.

Jim 29:38

gratulations that, that is a huge accomplishment. And that's, that's one of the great benefits. You haven't been in the city of Chicago, too. Yeah. That's terrific. And you're taking advantage of it so well.

Ken 29:51

Right. You're making an impact and you can see the impact. Yeah. Yeah.

Sulin Ba 29:57

Thank you. Great. I remember I had this conversation and please keep doing it because I learned so much more from the podcast that you produced. We

Ken 30:09

will indeed.

Jim 30:12

Thanks, Joanne. Thank you very much. Keep up the good work.

Sulin Ba 30:15


Ken 30:18

Yeah, thank you.

Jim 30:29

Ken, what did you think that was just really refreshing? What do you think? Yeah.

Ken 30:34

So refreshing, creative, passionate, and yet a lot of common sense. She's so aligned with what they're doing and what she's doing as a leader.

Jim 30:49

I think her focus on the curriculum, the education, the opportunities that are being presented to her students, are focused on the students and the outcomes. It's so obvious. And you know, in today's world, that's really what these 18 to 22 year olds need is just exactly that kind of thought process. And she brings the whole package to them. Just wonderful.

Ken 31:16

Yeah, and what an exemplar for, you know, do as I've done not do, as I say, I mean, she's, she's living it, you can feel that she is, you know, accessible. And

Jim 31:27

there. Yeah, yeah, you really can't feel that. And that just, it's so good for for students, especially those that really didn't have community and now she's trying to build a community for them, because they're out working and they're trying to, they're trying to establish themselves, financially in every other way. And she's just making it happen that education reform. So, kudos to her in the job that Paul is doing. It's really wonderful.

Dave 31:52

Thank you for listening to this episode of Dean's Council. This show is supported in part by Korn Ferry leaders in executive search. Dean's Council was produced in Boulder, Colorado by Joel Davis of analog digital art. For a catalogue of previous shows, please visit our website at Dean's If you have any feedback for us, please let us know by sending an email to feedback at Dean's And finally, please hit follow or subscribe on your favorite podcast player so you can automatically receive our latest show


bottom of page