Jesse H. Jones Business School Dean’s academic epiphany came during his junior year at Texas A & M University. Says PETER RODRIGUEZ, “I decided I really liked economics, so I started hanging around the economics department. It sounds like the nerdiest thing you could do, and I was, but I enjoyed it. I started doing research with a professor, and realized I liked it, and that I was good at it.”
With the department’s encouragement, he worked hard, won the senior thesis prize, and gained acceptance to the Ph.D. program at Princeton. The thought of teaching had not yet entered his head. “My father was a chemistry professor at Kilgore College, so I always thought going to school was what people did anyway. You just kept going until it was over.”
A detour during a leave of absence from the program brought him to Texas Commerce Bank in Houston (now Chase, but you knew that) and a spot in the analyst program. “I found it really interesting,” he says. “Everyone was young, working hard, learning firsthand about new things. The energy group was interesting and exciting – and the biggest client was Enron. That’s where everyone wanted to work.”
Rodriguez, though, began to feel the pull of the Ivy League. “I had a moment where I realized that my economic skills were going to fade if I didn’t use them. I had just married my wife, and we thought, ‘it’s now or never.’” Off the newlyweds went back to Princeton, where he completed the program. “I got back and realized how much I liked academic life, teaching and research; academia is a place where there’s always something interesting happening, whether you’re a nerd or humanistic or a person who likes to argue over coffee.”
After successful stints at the Mays School of Business at Texas A & M University and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he was senior associate dean for degree programs and chief diversity officer, Rodriguez arrived at Rice in July 2016 to take on the dean’s position.
He found a city much changed from the one he left 20 years ago. “Back then, it seemed less developed, less global, even less “foodie” as a city. Today, Houston feels more like a national or world city than just another city in Texas, in the same way you can’t say New Orleans is just a Louisiana city. One thing I really noticed that’s different is Downtown. I worked in the old Texas Commerce building, and nobody did anything after dark. There was no Discovery Green, the Rockets were at the Summit and the Astros at the Dome. It’s completely different now.”
At Rice, Rodriguez looks for students who, he says, “will succeed and add to the program.” That means students with the aptitude and preparedness, and great test scores, but they also need to add something. “We value all manners of diversity – experience, geography, nationality, background, viewpoints. But most of all, to add to the program you need to bring yourself into the program. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an introvert, but you need to be willing to talk about your views and beliefs and ask questions.”
The problems Rice MBA students work on usually don’t have black-and-white answers. “Diverse groups tend to make better decisions because they talk about them more,” says Rodriguez. “At least one person is saying, ‘I don’t see it that way.’ If you’re about to make a big mistake, maybe they’re the person who helps you see it. They make you think twice about your assumptions.”