Don Sexton: Celebrating 50 Years at Columbia Business School

Columbia Business speaks with Professor Sexton about his early days at the School, how the institution and its students have evolved, and what the future might hold for students of business.

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Don Sexton, Professor of Marketing and of Decision, Risk, and Operations, has a unique perspective on Columbia Business School. In addition to his myriad achievements and accolades — he is a recipient of the School’s Distinguished Teaching Award, former chair of the International Business Division, winner of the 2011 Marketing Trends Award, past president of the New York American Marketing Association, best-selling author, and all-around marketing and management guru — he will celebrate 50 years of teaching at the School next year. And that’s no small feat: it’s fully half of Columbia Business School’s history, with the School celebrating its centennial the same year.

In 1966, when Prof. Sexton first stepped on campus, Uris Hall had a large plaza out front, the deli served afternoon tea, and hoards of undergraduates would soon be storming through Low Library in protests against “the establishment.” In short, the School was a very different place. Columbia Business spoke with Prof. Sexton about his early days at the School, how the institution and its students have evolved, and what the future might hold for students of business.

Congratulations on 50 years at Columbia Business School! What has kept you here for all these years?

It’s the only job I ever wanted, to be on the faculty of Columbia University. I’ve received other offers but haven’t been interested in pursuing them because I happen to like the Business School, the University, and New York. That’s how I ended up at Columbia and, frankly, also why I’m still here.

You came to the School in 1966, during a tumultuous period in New York City history: riots for civil and gay rights, peace protests against the Vietnam War, and the rise of youth culture. What was the campus like in those turbulent years?

There were many issues dealing with the war and there was much political unrest. A lot of this came to a head at Columbia in the late ’60s with Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, eventually taking over Low Library. At times, groups of students would  attack buildings — [they would] consider going to the Economics Department or the Business School because those two areas of the University were seen as part of the overall “establishment.” The Economics Department unfortunately [had] groups of students running through the halls, breaking down office doors and destroying professors’ work. I could look out the window of my office in Uris Hall, which faced Low Library, and see groups of 200 or 300 students with banners marching, parading around campus. There were physical confrontations right on the steps of Uris Hall between demonstrators trying to enter and Business School students and faculty members trying to keep them out. What was surreal was the sense of uncertainty one had, not knowing what was going to happen on campus once you left your office. That period went on for a few years.

Were you involved personally in any of the hubbub?

There was one incident I was involved in. The morning after the “bust” — when New York City police had forcibly removed demonstrators from Low Library — the atmosphere on campus was palpably ugly.  Whoever was in charge of security at the time — this was more than 40 years ago — had decided that only faculty and staff could come in through the 116th and Broadway gate and all the students had to come in through the 116th and Amsterdam gate. They needed someone to stand at the gate at 116th and Broadway and tell the students they had to walk about a half mile to come in on the other side of campus. I was an assistant professor and happened to have a beard and long hair, and I guess they figured that I might be able to do it! I stood there for about two hours. It was a little touchy: I felt truly like the tuna fish in a tuna fish sandwich. Every so often, students would come up and say, “Why do we have to come in through the Amsterdam gate?” Which, frankly, I thought was a really good question, one for which I had no answer.

Honestly, if I had any sympathies, it was probably for the students and their concerns (although not for their methods). The University at the time was very autocratic. There was really no way to communicate directly or effectively with the president. There was no student and faculty senate. It was an old governance model that was on its last legs. One of the positive things that happened from all of the Sturm und Drang of the ’60s was the formation of the senate.

Speaking of post-1960s changes, it sounds like Uris Deli got repurposed during this period.

It was originally set up to be a place where we would have afternoon tea! With one exception, all of the faculty members were men, so there were faculty wives — and they were expected to pour the tea. At the time, my wife was a ceramic engineer, and she informed me she had no interest in pouring tea at the Tuesday afternoon tea parties. My generation of faculty was walking away from a lot of those 1940s traditions. I chaired a committee on that space to decide what it would become, believe it or not.

Shifting to your teaching experience at the School, you must have many memories from over the years. What are some of your favorite moments?

For me, working with a class is like being part of a team. When the team is working together, it’s a great feeling. How the class works depends on the audience — everyone in the class and the attitudes they bring;  me and how I’m able to communicate with and relate to them; and the material and the environment. A well-kept secret is that I enjoy singing — I can do karaoke all night. (BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business” is my go-to song.) I’ve even had the opportunity to front for a band. I’ve seen people get out of their chairs and dance in the aisles when I'm singing, which is just a neat and terrific feeling. When a class is going well, that’s exactly how it feels. Everyone is working together — enjoying the moment and ideas. Incidentally, I did successfully introduce karaoke to our Executive Education programs and have been trying to think of a way to introduce it into our full-time curriculum. But I think everyone is probably very happy that I have not been able to figure out how to do that — yet.

You are a marketing expert. In your opinion, how has the field of marketing evolved in the past 50 years?

The field [continually] changes, and the reason the field changes is because the world changes. When I started teaching, marketing had something called the “four Ps”: product, price, place, promotion. The way marketing has changed is that the four Ps no longer define marketing. Nowadays, marketing is, and should be, much more of a strategic function, which means targeting the customer and positioning the offer. My definition of marketing consists of just three words: managing perceived value. Perceived value is the most you’ll pay for anything — the most you’ll pay for a semester at Columbia Business School, for a Heineken, for a Corvette. It's not the price, it's the ceiling on price. It's what my management colleagues call “willingness to pay.” Everything I teach in marketing is about how we manage that. Anything we do in marketing — targeting, positioning, pricing, distributing, communicating, social media, customer service — should manage that perceived value. That's how I define marketing today.

How have classes at Columbia Business School changed?

We have more diversity, and we’re not talking about diversity only in terms of gender and ethnicity. In any class, there can also be great diversity in learning styles and attitudes. That means it takes a little bit more thoughtfulness on my side to try to get the right mix of teaching approaches, because I can’t teach just one way. I’ve got to find a way to speak to everybody in the room. That means I have to keep changing the person I’m teaching “to,” as well as my teaching approach and even my teaching personality to the extent I can.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

That would be high on the steps of Low Library during a snowstorm, looking over the campus. I’m a northeasterner — I like snow! And even when it stops snowing, I find that’s a most beautiful view of the campus.

Do you have a favorite spot around campus to grab a bite?

I like Le Monde, around 112th and Broadway. When people visit me, I like to go there. I used to go with colleagues to the bar at the Terrace Restaurant at 119th and Morningside. The bar had a magnificent view of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, but sadly the restaurant closed.

What are your hopes for the future of Columbia Business School?

I believe it’s terribly important for us to develop managers with holistic views of organizations, which means we, ourselves, need to know what goes on in the other divisions of the School. Whenever I am in a meeting with my colleagues, I learn interesting stuff. We need to be careful about being an organization that is too siloed. For example, our many centers have been instrumental in fostering cross-disciplinary thinking and communications. I hope the School’s new buildings [in Manhattanville] might allow more mingling of all the faculty in all the divisions.   When I started, the number of faculty was much smaller, and I can say that back then I knew every colleague. With a larger school, it’s more difficult to know everyone, what they’re thinking and what they’re working on. I hope that the school will continue to encourage entrepreneurial thinking, and I am sure it will. I’d also like to see us become even more global, with perhaps more outposts around the world. I think we are moving in all the right directions, and I am looking forward to seeing what happens over the next 50 years.

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