An Unlikely Dean

A Microsoft executive who had given up on plans for an academic career is chosen to lead Lawrence University's Conservatory of Music.
April 10, 2008

Read part of the news release about Lawrence University's hiring of Brian Pertl and it seems to reflect a familiar pattern: proud alumnus returning to take a leadership position at his alma mater.

But Pertl is hardly your typical dean. For one, he left his Ph.D. program and dreams of an academic life behind more than 15 years ago to work at Microsoft. That's where he's been ever since.

"It was a conscious decision," Pertl said of leaving the University of Washington ethnomusicology program. "I said to myself, 'Once I do this, I probably won't ever be back in the academic world.' "

This fall, when Pertl's mentor at Lawrence suggested that he apply for the Conservatory of Music dean opening, the former music performance and English student balked. Pertl had enjoyed being on the lecture circuit and occasionally speaking at Lawrence, but he was happy at Microsoft, where he'd risen up the ranks.

Pertl worked part time at the Seattle-based company while still enrolled at Washington, and said he couldn't pass up an opportunity to work there full time. He started as an ethnomusicologist who selected and licensed music for Microsoft products like Encarta World Atlas. In his current role as media acquisitions manager, he oversees a $5 million budget and manages a team of employees who help units within Microsoft choose and license music for company projects.

Pertl's mentor, a Lawrence professor who once taught him the trombone, was insistent that his former student consider the dean position.

"I actually thought it was kind of funny," Pertl said. "At the time I thought, 'I've been at Microsoft for 15 years. I'm not the right guy.' "

But Pertl applied, and as he spoke with more people at Lawrence about the position his mind changed. Still, he knew he wasn't a traditional candidate.

That's part of what attracted university leaders to him, said Jill Beck, Lawrence's president. "He is not 'in the mold,' but neither is Lawrence a typical university," she said in an e-mail, adding that she was also swayed by Pertl's knowledge of the arts and technology.

Speaking from his Microsoft office less than three months before he's set to start at Lawrence, Pertl said he's confident that he can make the transition from the corporate world to academe -- in part because he expects some of the issues to be the same.

"At first I thought coming in here, it's going to be comparing apples to oranges, but it isn't," he said.

For instance, Pertl said he's often lobbying Microsoft leaders to hire more full-time employees in his unit and rely less on contingent staff. That's akin to the discussion in higher education about the reliance on adjunct professors, he noted.

Pertl hopes that his experience managing budgets and employees at Microsoft will be transferable. As the chief academic and administrative officer at the conservatory, he will be responsible for, among other things, financial and curricular planning, and recruitment and retention of faculty.

At Microsoft, Pertl said employees are constantly assessed through job performance reviews. At Lawrence, he plans on setting up a system that allows others to evaluate him, and providing faculty and staff with more regular feedback -- a response to comments from some professors that communication with the dean needs to increase.

Still, he's cognizant of the cultural differences he's about to encounter.

"I don't want to go in and say the world is changing," Pertl said. "Not everything that we do as a big corporation will work at a university."

Pertl figures he'll still be lecturing and eventually teaching -- and he'll continue to accept requests to play his favorite instrument: the Australian didgeridoo.


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