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Dean Alex Triantis: Whiz Kid

Oct 29, 2013
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This is the cover story from the latest edition of Smith Business Magazine.
Download  Fall 2013 Smith Business Magazine PDF.

At first glance, the new dean of the Smith School might strike you as a little laid-back. But don’t let the calm Canadian vibe fool you. The Smith School’s new dean is savvy, ambitious and determined to take the Smith School to the top.

Alexander Triantis, the Smith School’s new dean, has always been a whiz kid. He took his first college-level math class when he was just 13 years old, at the University of Toronto, where his father was a professor of economics. In addition to the partial differential equations, Triantis learned two important things: that he loved math, and that a boy whose voice hasn’t yet changed really stands out in an evening calculus class.

Perhaps it was that sense of being on the outside that gave Triantis his warmly inclusive world view. Ask students or colleagues to describe Alex Triantis, and you’ll hear words like charming, friendly, relaxed, thoughtful, and calm. He has a reputation for being even-keeled. In fact, if he were any more even-keeled, he’d be a schooner.

The other word you’ll hear, over and over again, is smart. Triantis, who graduated from high school at 15 and was teaching college classes by the time he was 25, is a highly respected researcher in the field of financial strategy and valuation. His early love of math led him to study electrical engineering and then get a master’s degree in industrial engineering. While studying for his PhD, he grew fascinated with the complexities of finance, and that’s where his career has focused ever since. His CV is pages and pages long, listing scores of papers published in journals and presented at conferences. He is a top teacher at Smith, having won numerous teaching awards, including the school’s prestigious Krowe Award. Twice. Businessweek named him an outstanding professor at the University of Maryland.

So the new dean of the Smith School is an easygoing, friendly, laid-back, extremely smart guy. If you want to see the calm and composed Dean Triantis light up, though, you just have to get him talking about Smith, and his hopes for the school’s future.

Smith, the Learning Community

Triantis sees Smith as a learning community, one in which faculty, students and the local community have close ties from which they all benefit.

He’s thought a lot about the ways to improve the student experience, informed by his 18 years of teaching Smith students. In the classroom Triantis is a master instructor, infinitely patient as he leads students through complicated financial concepts. “I love teaching,” he says. “I love seeing that connection, when students apply what they’re learning. I love when students come back and say, “Wow, I kind of got it when I was taking your class, but now I’m really using it all the time.” That’s what I’m passionate about.”

Technology is going to be very disruptive to traditional teaching models, says Triantis. Giant online courses now offer functional content to students for free. The upcoming generation of students is accustomed to conducting much of their lives online. It is where they are entertained, informed and socialized. Increasingly, says Triantis, it is also where they expect to learn.

This presents Smith with an opportunity to change how curriculum is delivered, says Triantis. “Lectures are a one-way communication. If we take that one-way communication online — through media like video lectures delivered asynchronously — we can do a lot more with students during our face-to-face time,” he explains. “That would let us deliver much of the functional knowledge online and then spend in-class time working on active learning. Part of my vision is to figure out how we can leverage technology to provide a more challenging, exciting, engaging student experience.”

Less class time on lectures means more class time devoted to experiences that allow students to develop critical thinking and communication skills. Case studies, consulting projects, negotiations and action learning projects give students the opportunity to learn how decisions are made in the real world.

Making the Corporate Connection

Those cases and consulting projects should come from within the business community and, whenever possible, from the companies “in our own neighborhood,” says Triantis.

Smith’s learning community should include strong ties to the corporate community, says Triantis. He would like the school to bring in more business leaders to share their experiences with students in the classroom.

And he’d like to connect students, faculty and executives through more experiential learning projects. He believes they have the potential to transform the way students think about decision-making. Triantis is enthusiastic about the potential of active learning to help students synthesize the many issues that go into corporate decision-making.

“Traditionally, business schools have taught in a way that is very functional. They teach students about analytical techniques in finance or supply chain or marketing, but don’t have decision-making courses that teach you how to integrate the analytics with the ethics, and with the long- and short-term vision of your organization,” says Triantis. “But I think that is changing. We know that simple functional solutions generally don’t work in the real world, so we’re teaching a more systemic approach.”

Students will learn from practitioners, but executives and faculty also have much to learn from each other, Triantis believes. Years of corporate consulting have given Triantis a keen appreciation for the challenges executives face. He has been a sought-after consultant for companies like Morgan Stanley, Dupont, Marriott, Ernst & Young, and Airbus Industrie. He has also taught many executives through the Smith School’s executive education programs. His own research has often revolved around finding solutions to complex corporate problems – for example, the ways that real options can help companies better evaluate their strategic opportunities. Faculty research can be a big boon for corporate leaders, he believes, but only if they are aware that it exists and are able to access it.

Getting more of Smith’s big ideas into boardrooms as well as classrooms is important to building the feedback loop that characterizes a vibrant learning community. When faculty and executives are able to exchange questions — and answers — both research and practice are strengthened. “We have extraordinary intellectual capital at Smith. We are already finding ways to get the impact of our big ideas out to companies, but I’d like us to do a whole lot more,” says Triantis.

Alumni Engagement

The learning community isn’t complete without Smith alumni.

Triantis is hoping to lure more graduates back to Smith with opportunities to mentor, judge case competitions and engage with students. But he’s also hoping to create more opportunities for the Terp diaspora around the globe to engage with Smith and with each other. He’d like to offer opportunities for lifelong learning that help alumni continue to build the skills they need to grow and progress in their careers.

A true learning community is interconnected, and communication runs back and forth along the intersections, says Triantis. Students, faculty, corporate partners, and alumni all learn from each other, each interaction creating value for everyone in the network. As students and executives receive even more value from their association with Smith, the school’s reputation and rankings will grow, and it will be able to attract even more of the best students, top corporations and preeminent faculty.

When the learning community is fully fledged, everyone in it will be both giving and receiving value, and the school will go from strength to strength. That is what Dean Triantis hopes to nurture at Smith.

“Skate With Your Head Up”

Triantis is both an optimist and an optimizer. Like most finance professors, he has a bent toward the analytical. He has a thoughtful, nuanced view about almost everything, and despite his inclination toward the sunny side, is under no illusions about the challenges the Smith School faces. Fierce competition for students, new programs from competitors, increasing costs, and the very future of the higher education model are all shaping Smith’s future. Triantis knows that Smith will have to be ever more flexible and innovative to compete head-to-head with elite business schools.

“We have to be very entrepreneurial. We will have to be ambitious and determined, given the fierce competition among business schools at all levels,” he says. “How we leverage technology, how we customize the experience for students has the potential to really distinguish us.”

In many ways, he says, Smith is dealing with the same kinds of issues that keep corporate executives up at night. “Globalization and advances in technology have really increased the risk level in general in corporations. Most companies struggle with how to manage risk in a systematic and enterprise-wide fashion,” he says. “I don’t mean purely quantitative approaches, though that is important, but having a cohesive, enterprise-wide risk management approach that involves the judgment of many people in the organization. What strategic and tactical activities do you undertake in order to mitigate risk while taking advantage of opportunities? How do we prepare students to manage under uncertainty?”

Teaching students how to manage under uncertainty will mean marshaling all of the Smith School’s resources. Every Center of Excellence and corporate partner will have to be fully engaged with the learning community to give students the experiences that allow them to practice decision-making. That’s why Triantis is so focused on creating even more connections between the people and organizations affiliated with Smith.

Much of Triantis’ recent research has examined risk management. How do organizations  protect themselves against risk while at the same time exploiting uncertainty? What he’s learned is that a company’s strategy has to be staged over time. It’s got to build in flexibility in order to deal with disruptors. And companies should invest in “growth options”—putting small amounts of funding into projects that have the potential for big payoffs.

Triantis thinks about the process in hockey terms — not surprising for an avid fan of the sport. “Hockey players are taught to skate with their heads up and their eyes forward,” says Triantis. “That lets you see where the play is developing, to let you get to the right place at the right time to take the shot. It lets you see where the other players are, so you can make a clever pass, and even more importantly avoid an opposing player’s check.”

For Smith to progress, the dean will need to skate with his head up. But in typical Triantis fashion, he is positive: “There is a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of risk. But there is also great potential for us to be innovative and leapfrog our competition.”

There’s plenty to do, and Triantis is eager to get started. “I think we have yet to achieve all that we are capable of achieving,” he says. But he’ll go about managing change in his typical inclusive, friendly, even-tempered way: “I view this as a servant leadership role. I’m here to benefit the organization and the community.”

- Rebecca Winner, Office of Marketing Communications

Fast Facts about Dean Triantis

  • Background: Born in Toronto, Canada
  • Education: BS in electrical engineering from University of Toronto, MS and PhD in industrial engineering (finance) from Stanford University
  • Personal: Married to Catherine; dad to Will, 12 and Sophia, 14. He also has a yellow Labrador named Pi
  • Hobbies: Hockey (He’s a Caps fan, though he grew up rooting for the Maple Leafs), tennis, travel, especially Paris, Venice, Florence

“Ultimately, people make decisions, not models. We clearly saw during the financial crisis that despite having sophisticated risk management models, most financial firms still took on too much risk. Executives have responsibility for the long-term sustainable growth of their companies, even in the face of strong market forces that seem to encourage short-term decision-making. We can be as quantitative as we want, but if leaders aren’t principled, if they aren’t thinking about the long-term consequences of their decisions, all the rigor in the world isn’t going to help them.” - Alex Traintis, Dean

Meet the Dean

Meet Dean Alex Triantis at an event near you.

Watch Dean Traintis' Fall 2013 Video Message.

Read more from  the latest edition of Smith Business Magazine [PDF].

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.