Tippie Dean Sarah Fisher Gardial reflects on tenure at the UI, role of women in business

After eight years as the Tippie College of Business Dean, Sarah Fisher-Gardial reflected on the ever-changing business world and the role of women in business-related fields.


Ryan Adams

Former Tippie College of Business Dean Sarah Gardial poses for a portrait in her office on one of her final days as dean of the college on Feb. 19, 2020. Gardial previously worked at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville before serving as a dean and professor at Iowa. She begins her position as Dean of Business at Belmont University today.

Charles Peckman, Senior Reporter

Sarah Fisher Gardial promptly walked into High Ground Cafe at 7:30 a.m. The sun was slowly rising across the lacquered veneer tables that accent the coffee shop; one of Gardial’s go-to spots for a pick-me-up, it also serves as one of the items on her Iowa City bucket list.

Her self-described farewell tour, however, began over a month ago. Visiting favorite restaurants and friends’ homes served as a fond farewell to Iowa City, she said; this farewell tour, it is important to mention, was especially hard for Gardial considering she led the Tippie College of Business for nearly a decade.

The Hot Springs, Arkansas native, who holds degrees from the University of Arkansas and University of Houston, began serving as Tippie dean in 2012. Despite a less-than-cooperative Wall Street and shifting attitudes toward long-standing programs at business schools, Gardial said she welcomed these challenges as part of her position.

As The Daily Iowan first reported in October, Gardial is trading in her black and gold for the red and blue of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she will chair the Massey College of Business starting today.

Throughout the course of her eight-year tenure at the UI, Tippie has expanded its entrepreneurship and analytics offerings; in 2017, the college also announced the discontinuation of the full-time Master of Business Administration program. This decision, she said, stemmed from depressed nationwide enrollment in full-time programs with a preference for part-time, specialized courses.

One area in which Gardial said Tippie has flourished is marrying the business world with other disciplines, she said the role of psychological analysis in business is ever-expanding.

Ryan Adams
Former Tippie College of Business Dean Sarah Gardial poses for a portrait in her office on one of her final days as dean of the college on Feb. 19, 2020. Gardial previously worked at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville before serving as a dean and professor at Iowa. She begins her position as Dean of Business at Belmont University today.

In 2006, for example, Gardial contributed to a research article about the attributes that make a successful salesperson, asked whether these attributes have changed with the onset of big data and analytics, she said a challenging, yet rewarding aspect of her job is exploring the ever-changing qualities that make the business world tick.

“You know, when I was coming through — and this is over 30 years ago — we were looking at people’s behaviors, there was a lot of psychology involved in that and we were trying to pull out what helps people make decisions in the marketplace,” she said. “Now, we have transactional data that allows us to, at a very micro level, go in and literally track people’s behaviors. We no longer have to rely on the psychology of the ‘black box’ and try and figure out what’s in people’s heads.”

Although Gardial admitted that too much data can lead to an over-reliance on the numbers, she added that analytics have given the business world the opportunity to not only pinpoint behaviors at a certain point in time but also derive value for customers moving forward.

“Business analytics is the fastest-growing major in our college. And it’s not necessarily that everyone wants to sit at a computer and massage large datasets — it is that data is a part of every aspect of business,” she said. “Businesses, as fast as they can, are incorporating the data into different functional areas. It requires our students coming out today to be ambidextrous.”

According to the most recent data from Tippie, 5 percent (or 124 students) of 2,479 undergraduates are studying business analytics and information systems. The most popular major, according to this cohort, is finance (which has roughly 1,000 students.)

Paired with this enrollment data is a rise in female-identifying students choosing business-related fields during their time at the UI. As a woman in business herself, Gardial said she is no stranger to the sexism women face in boardrooms across the country.

“I think that there are some larger cultural patterns that are more implicit that keep women from getting ahead,” Gardial said. “It is absolutely true that women in leadership positions get judged differently than men…I think that there’s not a woman in a leadership position who doesn’t understand that we need to be careful, thoughtful, and intentional about how we frame our communications.”

This framing, she added, includes limiting emotional displays in the workplace. When a man cries, she said, it is viewed as a source of strength and vulnerability. When a woman cries, she is “being hysterical.” Gardial said she has been part of many conversations about how to navigate these minefields and added that the onus is on every level of the university.

Ben Allen Smith
Sarah Fisher Gardial, Dean of the Tippie College of Business, speaks during the state Board of Regents meeting inside the IMU Main Lounge on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Gardial spoke changes in the market dynamics that led to the decision to close the full-time M.B.A. program.

“It is not a level playing field, but you can’t let it hold you back,” she said. “Men and women see the world in different ways…the world needs both of those perspectives out there. If we only have men at the top, we’re losing a very important other half of the equation — which is the female perspective — on the world and both of those viewpoints need to come into decision-making processes.”

As of right now, Amy Kristof-Brown serves as interim dean of the college; previously, Kristof-Brown has held various positions within Tippie, she said Gardial’s departure from the UI saddened her, but added that she has spoken “openly and candidly” about the future of the business school.

“I started working with [Gardial] when she first became dean,” Kristof-Brown said. “She is a very kind, open leader and when she announced her new position in October of 2019, we started talking about next steps for our programs extensively.”

Kristof-Brown echoed Gardial’s sentiments about long-standing programs within Tippie, although discontinuing the full-time M.B.A. was a difficult decision, she added that under Gardial’s leadership the college has kept its eyes towards the future while also focusing on the needs of current students, staff, and faculty.

Looking forward, Kristof-Brown said candidates are applying to fill the deanship on a permanent basis. Once off-campus interviews conclude, the finalists will present at a series of forums.

Gardial said she is ecstatic for the “Belmont chapter” of her life; but as the UI campus becomes a blip in her rearview mirror, she will always have one eye trained on the Hawkeye state.

“It is a very sad word, ‘leaving.’ In some ways, though, it is the best of all worlds — you’re in a place you love, and you’re hopefully going to a place that you will love as well,” she said. “When I leave, I am not leaving here because I’m unhappy or because there are issues or problems. I’m leaving here to go to another opportunity, but that means I’m leaving a place I love.”