The following is from the Dec. 7, 2014, edition of The Dallas Morning News.
December 10, 2014
By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News
Al Niemi is used to putting other people’s names on buildings and programs.
But earlier this year, three major donors to the SMU Cox School of Business wanted to honor his accomplishments.
Since taking over as dean in 1997, Niemi has transformed Cox from a respected regional B-school into an international leader in business higher ed. He’s tripled the school’s endowment to $210 million and funded construction of the James M. Collins Executive Education Center.
Niemi was told he could choose anything he wanted to bear his name.
He proposed a novel fellowship program that would allow undergraduate and graduate students to do research in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute.
The idea gained momentum among donors. And as more money came in — $2.7 million pledged to date — that mission broadened to create the Albert W. Niemi Center for American Capitalism, which also includes community outreach and academic programs.
Niemi says because the new center is privately funded, its programs won’t be affected by reports last week that SMU plans to cut annual operating expenses by as much as $35 million.
His namesake center is housed in the Trammell Crow Building in the Cox school quadrant and has four faculty members and a pool of eager student participants.
“Imagine if you’re a student having on your résumé, ‘Worked with the Bush Institute on a research program,’” Niemi says. “I’ve got 107 undergrads in two classes this fall. I asked them, ‘How many of you would be interested?’ Every hand went up. It’s going to be a rich addition to student learning at SMU. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Niemi says he’s letting the Bush Institute pick the research topics. “I’ve told them, ‘Tell us where you need student workers, and we’ll provide them.’”
First on the Bush wish list was help with its military service initiative, which tackles issues being faced by post-9/11 veterans and is headed by Col. Miguel Howe, who retired in 2013 after nearly 25 years of active duty in the U.S. Army. . .
Four other research projects are in various stages of implementation.
Maribeth Kuenzi, an assistant professor and the new director of the Niemi Center, wants to roll out projects in a manageable fashion.
“The center is going to grow as we get more funding sources and more students involved,” she says. “The groundwork that we’re doing now and having a trial project helps us shape our next steps.”
Draw for students
One project wants to bring women’s rights issues to the forefront of global thinking. Another that just started is aimed at making the nation energy independent.
A fourth, slated for next year, will have six students finding ways to get the economy humming at real growth of 4 percent or more, Niemi says. The fifth, still in early talking stages with the Bush Institute, will study the underperformance of public schools.
Niemi sees the center and its ties with the Bush Institute as a big draw for students. He plans to spotlight it during the critical January through March period when prospects visit the campus.
Kuenzi says it’s also important at the other end of the educational spectrum.
“I’m on a hiring committee for the provost, and one of the things that we talk about is the opportunities that we have with the Bush Center,” she says. “At some point, it will help us recruit top-notch faculty who want to do research.”
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