TAMPA — James Stikeleather picked up his University of South Florida identification card, and envisioned approaching a retail counter.
“This is for my senior discount,” he said to the imaginary cashier. “And this is for my college student discount.”
Jokes about the generation gap flew as the inaugural class in the USF Doctor of Business Administration program reported for orientation on Friday. With skateboarders and backpack-toting students hustling by, 29 executives with decades of professional experience under their belts toured the library, visited the Marshall Student Center and picked up textbooks for the start of a three-year program designed to provide skills needed to conduct rigorous research and apply the findings to real-world decision making.
The demand for such degrees is growing; USF has the nation’s 11th program, and organizers had expected about 15 applicants for the first class.
Very little is offered nationwide after executives earn a master’s of business administration degree, said Grandon Gill, a business professor who holds his “DBA” from Harvard. Business Ph.D. programs normally require full-time attendance and focus on academic careers, he said.
“With this degree, we’re teaching the same research skills they teach in a Ph.D. program, but our focus is on applying that research to practical problems, as opposed to applying it to holes in research literature, which is what academic Ph.D.s tend to focus on,” Gill said.
Other national programs have heavy out-of-state enrollment, but USF’s is about 80 percent locals, Gill said.
“We’re going to be graduating a whole bunch of these research-knowledgeable executives who are working here in the Tampa Bay area, which is to my mind a great contribution to the area,” he said. “And we’re establishing relationships that are going to be sustained for our College of Business for years to come.”
Students represent the gamut of industry. There are bankers, tech specialists, accountants, lawyers and health and construction executives. Among them are Basma Khoja, a shareholder and member of the board of directors of Almashfa Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Gen. David “Tanker” Snyder, who heads two Tampa military contracting firms and served as wing commander at MacDill Air Force Base from 2003-06.
Most are motivated by a continuous desire for self-improvement. But there are plenty of other reasons the students found themselves strolling around USF on Friday.
“There’s something refreshing about being on a campus. It’s rejuvenating. You don’t feel as old as you – well, in some ways you feel older,” said Stikeleather, the chief innovation officer at Dell Computer who joked about his disparate IDs. “But people need more exposure to the academic situation. The ability to think, the ability to remember you’re draining the swamp rather than fighting off the alligators.”
John Townsend, a vice president at T. Rowe Price, talked of expanding his capabilities and boosting his already-successful career, but had additional motivation.
“I’ve got three children of my own in grade school, and this was a good example, as a father to them, of continuous learning,” he said.
Brush aside any image of Rodney Dangerfield living it up at fictional Grand Lakes University in the film comedy Back to School.
The DBA program is no picnic. Most of the work is online, but students are required to attend class in Tampa one weekend a month from August through December and February through June. The course fee is $30,000 a year for three years.
Lauren Rudd, president of Rudd Asset Management and a syndicated newspaper columnist, said he saw an ad for the USF course in the Wall Street Journal, “and I said, ‘I’m in the program.’”
He has done graduate work at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, but never completed his dissertation. At 69, he hopes to teach at New College in Sarasota, but needs a doctorate to do so.
“To me, that’s relaxation,” he said. “The idea of getting back on a university campus is my idea of a candy store.”