The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


An inside look: Dean of the Cox School of Business Albert Niemi Jr.

An economist from the small town of Mansfield, Mass., Al Niemi has been dean of SMU’s Cox School of Business since 1997.

Niemi, a graduate of Stone Hill College, a small liberal arts school located 18 miles south of Boston, said during his sophomore year, he was walked down the hall to the Economics Department chair and at that moment, he gave in to his passion for economics and declared it as his major. 

After winning a tuition scholarship, Niemi’s mother convinced him to live at home during his undergraduate years. Niemi was no “frat-star,” but rather spent his time working. The dean has sold cars and even managed a motel. At the age of 25, with a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and recently married, Niemi took a faculty position teaching economics at the University of Georgia.

Niemi said his favorite part of his job there was teaching a history of business and economics class to undergraduates. 

He said he hopes to teach at SMU during future summers.

“What people don’t realize is just how hard it is to put a course together,” Niemi said. “When I go through my syllabus, I am so full of things that should be in the course, but I constantly wonder how I would ever fit them all in?”

It was a phone call during the 1997 NCAA Basketball Championship game that brought Niemi to Dallas from the small college town of Athens, Ga.

After being part of a search that began in October of 1996, Niemi found himself responding to the provost of SMU offering him the position by saying, “Could we talk during half time?” Niemi, who said he did not see the end of the game, took the position as the dean of The Cox School of Business later that evening.

Acting as the chief external voice for the business school, Niemi said, “When people think of Cox, they come to me.” Almost one third of SMU graduates are from Cox.

Niemi travels the country, hosting receptions that unite Cox alums, SMU parents and prospective students. Niemi said that he travels to 30 cities annually because Cox alumni, which number 36,000 strong, are so spread out.

Niemi points to The Economist, which ranked the top 100 business schools based on alumni network. He said SMU is the only institution to be consecutively ranked in the top ten.

While familiarity with Cox is strong regionally, Niemi is growing the name nationally.

After graduation, whether a student finds him- or herself in Memphis, New York or Galveston, Niemi encourages students to contact the Office of Alumni Relations.

When Kevin Knox, Assistant Dean for External Relations, who runs the Office for Alumni Relations, and Niemi came to SMU in 1997, they looked back at the previous 15 years of fundraising efforts and saw that Cox hosted only one alumni event outside of Texas.

They decided to plan some events. Knox and Niemi hosted 16 alumni events outside of Texas in that first year; they are now up to 30.

Niemi believes fundraising efforts begin with “friend-raising.”

“If you actively engage the alumni and they feel proud of what is currently going on in the school, then they will want to support the school and ask how they can help,” he said.

Being a dean for 26 years, Neimi has raised a combined $200 million while at UGA and SMU.

Niemi said he believes the high price of education is worth it.

Fine educations are received at state schools, but “you can fall off the balance beam without being noticed,” he said. “What you pay for at SMU is a nurturing and family friendly atmosphere.”

“Knowing what I know now, serving as dean for 14 years at Georgia and 12 at SMU, I think SMU is a wonderful experience that is worth the price,” he said.

Niemi points out that last fall’s first-year class at The University of Texas at Austin was made up of 92 percent Texans.

“While the University of Texas is a great Texan school, SMU is a global school,” Niemi said.

He advocates that the smaller private school environment provides more value on a long-term basis. Niemi also believes the SMU education pays for itself very quickly.

Cox has recently updated curriculum by creating a new risk management and insurance major and improving the finance major. Niemi said the decision was “driven by industry”.

“We get a lot of feedback from those hiring our graduates and we listen to them,” he said.

Students still question some reasoning behind curriculum. The policy not allowing students to declare a double major in Cox was made by the faculty, but was also “driven by industry.”

“We want our students to have a broad base in the liberal arts. The goal is to keep the Cox portion of a student’s academic portfolio no larger than 40 percent,” he said.

Cox degrees will not detail your major on it.

“Cox is building the brand. To say you earned a BBA with a concentration in real estate is weakening the currency. Everyone in the world knows what an MBA is, we want everyone to know what a BBA is,” he said.

Knowing what he knows now, Niemi believes that if he were a freshman, he would be inclined to study economics and finance.

“I loved my econ. major,” Niemi said. “Economics gives you a way of looking at the world and seeing the first, second, third and fourth quarter conditions.

Niemi said, “What we offer in Cox is a kit of tools that makes people more employable at graduation.” In his college days, Niemi enjoyed history but worried about employment as a history major. He said he believes “there are economists and historians who do well, but, you have to find your passion.”

For those graduating, Niemi shares advice: “In that first job you have, work really hard at it. Don’t go in there thinking you’ll soon be in graduate school.” Where one has the ability to follow a passion, Niemi recommends following that passion. After all, he did.

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