Early Days of the Business Program

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The Early Days of the UW Bothell Business Program

with Dr. P.V. (Sundar) Balakrishnan


April 28, 2022, Ray Marcham

Building a new institution; starting a new program or a brand-new Business School at a new university campus is not for the faint hearted.  But, watching the program grow far beyond where it started can become a source of great joy.

For Dr. P.V.  (Sundar) Balakrishnan, the result of his efforts is all around him.  Dr. Balakrishnan is not just a professor in the School of Business at the University of Washington Bothell, but he is the last of the original five professors hired in 1994 to start UW Bothell’s business program.  From the program's modest beginnings in the Canyon Park business park to its current spot at the current campus, he has seen the business program grow, prosper, and become its own school with an international reputation.

At various times, he has held almost every major position in the school. He was the Head of the business program for two years, responsible at a young age for shepherding in a new phase of growth; the Area Coordinator for the Marketing program, and has been Associate Dean of the School of Business bringing in a record of new admissions.

From the program's modest beginnings... to its own school with an international reputation.

He is also one of the renowned teachers on the UW Bothell campus.  He was awarded the University of Washington’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2011, the highest teaching honor a professor can get at UW Bothell.

It is a long way from that first year in Canyon Park, where Professor Balakrishnan helped start the business administration program in a rented space at the Bothell business park.  He was the first to arrive at the building that would house the new business program.  "I was here even before they had a full-time secretary hired," he says, "In fact, she probably was joining the same day I was."

The process of being hired was an experience in itself, as UW was not hiring just for Bothell.  "They were trying to hire five people for Bothell," he says, "and trying to hire five people for Tacoma."  The process of hiring was extensive for Dr. Balakrishnan, who was at the time an assistant professor at Ohio State.  He was part of a group of 10 who faced a hiring panel, gave presentations and spent days in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell.

Once hired, he became part of a program that quickly outgrew the initial space given to the business program.  "Over time we became so successful that they had to build another floor," he says.  The extra space wasn’t the only result of their success.  Parking issues developed, with a distinct way to ensure all students were able to get a spot.  "We went from having traditional parking anywhere all around the building," he says, "to valet parking! Not because we became fancy. We were still gritty because... we had to park double or triple for a while until the new campus opened up."

"Our research productivity was off the charts."

The success of the professors was not just in their makeshift classrooms, but also the research they were doing at the time. "Our research productivity was off the charts," he said.  "There were very few schools of our size that could compare with us in terms of our ability to publish in the very top journals."

Starting the new program was not the only major event happening in his life.  Dr. Balakrishnan had just become a father to twins, while his wife had major complications from the births.  It was after the birth of the twins that he and his expanded family moved from Ohio to Washington.  Thus, he sees the business program, the future School of Business, as a bit like another child, a triplet to his kids.  His kids also spent a lot of time in the new UW Bothell space in Canyon Park.  "My twin girls... literally grew up in the faculty lounge, in my office," he says. "We would be changing their diapers there because we had nowhere to take them and keep them."

He, along with his fellow new UW Bothell business program faculty members, had big ideas on what they wanted to do.  "We really thought we were going to do something important.  We really thought we were going to do something unique," he said, "and that we were going to do something just... you know find all the things that were irksome in business schools that we've been at and then try and sort of correct them."

There wasn’t much for the faculty to work with at first.  "We also knew we didn't have a lot of resources coming in.  We didn't have an endowment.  We were going to work hard to get what we needed to do an excellent job of delivering on our mission: paramount was our faculty-student relationship."  That included what he was given when he arrived at Canyon Park.  It was a reminder that he was in a rented space in a business park.  "The only thing I got was a doorstop.  All of the office doors were spring-loaded and really highly spring-loaded.  It took an effort to open the doors and keep them open, and so they gave everybody a doorstop."  It became a metaphor for the campus - we will keep the doors open for you!

That they would be teaching a different kind of student also became apparent early on, especially when at the first orientation.  It was a big event, with all the new faculty, members of the new Advisory Board from around Canyon Park and others.  But it didn’t go as planned.  "We had chairs back all the way in that room," he says, "It turned out, only five students showed up for this orientation!"  Some of the students also had other interests besides family, work, and school.  Professor Balakrishnan remembered that one student didn’t show up for class because a favorite ski area had opened up, while another had to skip a week because they had already paid for a cruise, and they were going to take it.

"... delivering on our mission: paramount was our faculty-student relationship."

The program grew and grew even with that second floor added on.  The space was tight enough that the student and faculty lounges were one and the same.  But out of that situation came an idea that would become a UW Bothell institution, one that would allow students in the Canyon Park building to not leave to get a beverage.  "One of the students had a brilliant idea," he says.  "She said, 'You know, we need a coffee shop.  We don't have a coffee shop.  Every time we need something we have to drive out of the business park to go get something.  She got permission from the Chancellor and was able to turn part of the lounge into a coffee shop.  It came over when the new UW Bothell campus was built.  That same coffee shop is today is in the new incarnation, in the UW2 building, Commons Hall, called The Common Grounds," he says of the new place for one of the UW Bothell originals.

The same can be said for Balakrishnan, who is popularly called 'Dr. B' by his many former students, who still has a few unusual reminders of those initial days in Canyon Park.  They sit in his office at the campus he moved to when it was completed in 2000.  "Twenty-seven years later," he says, laughing, "I can see... there are still seven or eight boxes sitting unpacked and acting as a desk in my current office!"  There is still work to be done, and boxes to unpack.


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