Profiles | Aug 03, 2022 | Fran Jankowski
Leading with Purpose
For 15 years, Dean Donna Rapaccioli, PhD, BS ’83, led the Gabelli School through an unprecedented era of transformation, forever changing undergraduate and graduate business education at Fordham. At the end of June, Rapaccioli will step down from her role as dean and return to teaching and research as a member of the faculty.
In May 2007, Donna Rapaccioli, PhD, stood at a podium to address graduating seniors for the first time since being confirmed as dean of Fordham’s undergraduate College of Business Administration, as it was known at the time. She shared a story about her interview for the role. If she were to serve as dean, the hiring committee asked, what would she want her legacy to be?
She ran through some possible answers before responding. She could say her legacy would be an impressive new building to replace Faber Hall, a former Jesuit residence on the Rose Hill campus where the business school occupied a few floors. Or she could say that her legacy would be securing a multimillion-dollar donation to strengthen the school’s future.
But “these just weren’t ambitious enough,” Rapaccioli told the senior class and their families. “I knew what I wanted my legacy to be. It was truly simple as legacies go, and yet supremely important to me.”
“My legacy,” she continued, “is for every student to graduate with the skills they need to become compassionate business leaders who contribute to society while living balanced lives.”
She could not have predicted the future any better. Fifteen years after Rapaccioli assumed leadership of business education at Fordham, the school has developed a clear identity as a place where students learn how to practice business in a purposeful, caring, and compassionate way—business that produces not only profit but also positive change in the world.
Rapaccioli achieved many goals that have transformed the Gabelli School of Business. She worked with the University leadership to create not one but two cutting-edge homes for business education at Fordham: Hughes Hall at Rose Hill and 140 West 62nd Street at Lincoln Center. During her tenure, Mario Gabelli, BS ’65, and his wife, Regina Pitaro, FCRH ’76, made two historic donations to the school—$25 million in 2010 and $35 million in 2020—giving the Gabelli School of Business its name and providing long-term support for academic programs, faculty research, scholarships, teaching excellence, and more.
In 2015, under Rapaccioli’s leadership, Fordham unified its undergraduate, graduate, and executive-level business programs under one name—the Gabelli School of Business—bringing students and faculty together as one learning community. The school earned national recognition for its undergraduate core curriculum, updated its master’s programs to meet the changing needs of industry, and launched two doctoral degree programs. The Gabelli School currently holds the No. 1 spot in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Corporate, Social, and Environmental Responsibility ranking and eight top-25 academic subject-area rankings in U.S. News & World Report. The school has also emerged as a leader in responsible and sustainable business—it is a United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education “Champion” institution and a valued part of Fordham’s AshokaU Changemaker Campus initiative.
Through all this growth and recognition, Rapaccioli has kept her focus on the one overriding goal she cited in her job interview: developing future business leaders who find true reward in creating positive change for people and communities.
Revitalizing the curriculum from the ground up
From the very beginning of her tenure, Rapaccioli knew that if Fordham’s undergraduate business students were to be prepared to lead, they needed the best possible curriculum. What’s surprising, perhaps, is where she began: not with business at all. She, Dorothy Klotz, PhD, and their team of collaborators started with the liberal arts. They felt that a true business leader needs to be well-read, a student of history, well-versed in the principles of philosophy, and skilled in relating to other people. They have to understand the societies that their actions in business have the potential to shape. To ensure that every Fordham business student would be a student of the human experience, they grounded the program in the humanities.
On that foundation, Rapaccioli and the faculty built a business program centered on experience-based learning. Through projects, presentations, and simulations, students would have carefully curated encounters with the kinds of situations they would one day face at work. The team also developed four integrated projects that give students a chance to reflect on and imagine their future place in the business world: career exploration for first-year students, team-based problem-solving for sophomores, analytics for juniors, and leadership for seniors.
Nevin Kulangara, BS ’15, was among the first Gabelli School students to experience the new core curriculum. Now pursuing his MBA at Wharton after five years in investment banking and private equity, Kulangara said the core curriculum “did an exceptional job of teaching the foundational disciplines—accounting, marketing, finance, information systems, and so on—as essential components of a well-rounded business leader’s toolkit.”
“Taking these principles and applying them to a central, ‘real-world’ case study also taught us invaluable lessons about teamwork, messaging, and communication,” he added.
The reimagining of the undergraduate core—which became a model for other Jesuit business schools—was just one step in Rapaccioli’s comprehensive effort to enhance business education at Fordham. The improvements that came later, far too numerous to mention in full, included the launch of Fordham’s first undergraduate business degree program at Lincoln Center and two honors tracks: the Global Business Honors Program and the Ignite Honors Program. Faculty leaders and dedicated administrators reinvented the full-time MBA as a flagship two-year program with a signature orientation experience that incorporates international travel and consulting; they redesigned the part-time MBA curriculum to suit working professionals; and they launched three fully online Master of Science programs.
Fordham took its place at the doctoral level of business education, too. An Yan, PhD, worked with Rapaccioli to launch the Doctor of Professional Studies (DPS) degree program in partnership with the prestigious Peking University in China, and Iftekhar Hasan, PhD, pioneered the Gabelli School’s PhD program, which welcomed its first students in 2016. Rapaccioli wanted Fordham to play a role in cultivating the next generation of business scholars and educators, and today it does. To date, 13 students have graduated with a DPS and three have completed the PhD program.
“Donna knew from the beginning that a PhD program is a long-term investment, an important component of any globally competitive business school,” Hasan said. “She has worked relentlessly to ensure our students and the program have received ample support throughout the years. Donna has been a great champion for the program, and I am proud to say that we have graduated our first class because of her leadership.”
What is noteworthy about the strides made during Rapaccioli’s tenure—in the curriculum, facilities, reputation, and all other areas of the school—is that they owe their success to teamwork. Rapaccioli believes that the greatest solutions emerge from the work of many, not one. And so she has built coalitions of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, empowering them to draw on their insight, enthusiasm, and expertise to meet a common goal.
“She seeks to develop, mentor, and foster greatness in everyone who works for her,” said Greer Jason-DiBartolo, PhD, the Gabelli School’s associate dean for administration. “There are not many people who are equally committed to caring and to expecting excellence. She is one of those few special people.”
A focus on people and planet
Rapaccioli often talks about two traits that make Fordham business students and alumni special.
One is that they are unentitled—willing to take on any task, large or small. She takes pride in hearing industry professionals describe times when their staff members turned down certain assignments but Gabelli School graduates stepped up, earning the respect of their superiors and their peers.
The other is that Gabelli School students have an overriding sense of care for the world around them. They are concerned about the well-being of all people, and they understand the value of service. They genuinely want to use business principles and skills to change the world.
These two characteristics have roots in Dean Rapaccioli’s family upbringing and her Catholic faith. She believes people should work hard to achieve success, and that success rings true only when it makes a meaningful difference in lives beyond one’s own.
To that end, during her time at the helm of the Gabelli School, Rapaccioli invested in social innovation: the idea of applying creative, practical, and sustainable business approaches to solve societal and environmental problems, especially for the good of people who have been marginalized.
In recent years, the Gabelli School launched the Responsible Business Coalition to unite industry leaders, faculty scholars, and students around business practices and research that benefit people and the planet. The coalition seeks to make strides in three areas: sustainable fashion, forward-thinking leadership, and methods of business disclosure and reporting that allow people to identify companies’ true positive and negative impact on the environment and society.
Gabelli School faculty and administrators also helped to propel social innovation-related initiatives at the university level. The Social Innovation Collaboratory is a lab where members of the Fordham community workshop and test practical solutions to pressing global issues, and the Fordham Foundry is a business incubator that prioritizes startups that advance New York City communities.
Today, students can choose to pursue academic concentrations in social innovation, many of which are enriched by new courses that address the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) aspects of conducting business. There is even a version of the school’s storied Student-Managed Investment Fund that focuses on ESG investing.
The Gabelli School’s commitment to these principles is poised to continue. Lerzan Aksoy, PhD, who will serve as interim dean, has offered inspired leadership in this area for more than a decade—as the associate dean of strategic initiatives, managing director of the Responsible Business Coalition, an accomplished marketing researcher, and a champion of business that contributes to the greater good. The socially innovative story that the Gabelli School began to tell over the past decade is still in its early chapters.
Reaching around the globe
Rapaccioli sought to strengthen and extend Fordham’s ties to the world during her tenure. She supported faculty in developing weeklong study tours to Germany, Greece, Israel, Poland, Japan, Singapore, and other global business centers, giving students a chance to experience new cultures and business traditions. She invested in building a home for the Gabelli School in London, where 249 undergraduate and graduate business students traveled to study this year. She championed faculty and staff members’ efforts to create relationships with universities abroad that have provided faculty with new research partners and students with new places to learn.
She also brought the world to Fordham. Rapaccioli supported admissions officers in their outreach in countries where people would find value in a Fordham business education. She made connections with international executives and government leaders and invited them to speak to students during International Business Week and at conferences and class sessions throughout the year. She formed global relationships with Jesuit business schools, collaborating on the Inspired Paradigm for Jesuit Business Education and advising institutions around the world on how they could implement this kind of forward-thinking, socially conscious business program.
On May 24 at the Gabelli School’s graduate commencement ceremony, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, offered a special thank-you to Rapaccioli and presented her with a Magis Medal. Established this year, the award honors longtime administrators who have strengthened the Fordham community “through their discerning wisdom, extraordinary leadership, and unstinting commitment to excellence in the service of others.”
“She has led the school with energy, vision, devotion, and love,” he said about Rapaccioli, the first-ever recipient of the award.
“In the process, she has transformed it and made it a leader not only in American business education, but a leader and trailblazer in international Jesuit business education. Therefore, we are all in her debt, a debt that is so great that I could never adequately thank her.”
One of the greatest values of global experience is the feeling of returning home after a rewarding exploration, and in some ways, that is what Rapaccioli has done. As of July 1, she will come back to the Gabelli School faculty. Developing the next generation of compassionate business leaders who contribute to the world while leading balanced lives will continue to be her legacy and her work. She’ll just do it full time, from the front of the classroom.
Degrees awarded to undergraduate and graduate business students during Rapaccioli’s tenure
Percent of Gabelli School undergraduates who complete at least one internship
Graduates of the two Gabelli School honors programs Dean Rapaccioli helped to create
Contributions raised to improve business education at Fordham
The Gabelli School’s national ranking for corporate, environmental, and social responsibility, according to Bloomberg Businessweek
Corporate partnerships to support academics, student activities, and faculty research
Courses offered on environmental, social, and government topics in business
Endowed chairs created to advance research while attracting and retaining more of the world’s leading business scholars and educators