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Norman Baker:
He put the PLUS
in business education

Date: Jan. 14, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos by: Dottie Stover
Archive: Campus News

Norm Baker wasn't exactly thrilled about the idea of trekking across Europe for over a month with 20 business juniors. He'd already traveled to many parts of the globe. He had to leave his wife at home. He would miss his five grandkids, whose photos clutter the windowsill in his Lindner Hall office. The accommodations would be no-frills.

Norm Baker, with F. Koffrie, chair, Buhrmann board of directors, Amsterdam Only two things would make this trip worth it: the students, plus the chance to see his dream transformed into reality.

The students with whom Baker traveled in August and September are in the second class of the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Honors-PLUS Scholars Program in the College of Business Administration. They're not your everyday business majors. They're young adults who are among the first to experience a program that Baker envisioned before he stepped down as UC's provost in 1993.

Tristate businesses had a problem that Baker planned to fix. The bright, young talents they recruited from universities with more prestigious reputations tended to stay in Cincinnati for only five to eight years and then move back to the East or West coast, taking all their training and talent with them. So Baker, professor of quantitative analysis and information systems at UC since 1974, worked with major donors that included Carl H. Lindner Jr. and the Procter & Gamble Foundation to found a program to recruit the region's brightest students and keep them right here where local businesses need them. As incentive, Honors-PLUS, founded in 1996 at CBA, supplies these top-notch talents with full-tuition scholarships, real-world experience through an internship and mandatory co-op, mentoring from workplace professionals, leadership training, plus international exposure.

The last part - global experience - was the area in the plans that seemed the most "pie in the sky" to Baker. Yet, as he witnessed firsthand this summer, it has become a successful part of the program. The Honors-PLUS scholars Baker accompanied traveled for 32 days to more than 12 businesses throughout Europe.

"I really wanted to participate in one of the trips and see if the educational experience turned out as well as I had hoped it would," he explains.

Now back at home months later, he concludes: "I thought it was great. It exceeded my expectations." Emphasizing how hard CBA faculty member Raj Mehta and CBA international programs director Susan Sadlier have worked to make the international experience a success, Baker adds, "Amsterdam went especially well - we visited seven very different companies whose executives made excellent presentations about corporate strategy and the problems and opportunities of doing business in the world market."

"I loved watching the students step outside their comfort zones, getting to know them more and seeing the opportunities that have unfolded for them and watching the looks in their eyes as it unfolded," he says.

Norm Baker playing cards in ParisTraveling to Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France with the 20 20-somethings, Baker participated in all the official activities the students had on their agenda, as well as many that weren't. In addition to accompanying them to every corporate session and event, he played cards with them on trains and in hotels until late at night. He ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with them. He kayaked along side them in the wilds of Finland. A few students even got to crack "break-away" plates over his head at a Greek restaurant in Paris, as he laughed right along with them. He also saw the sights with groups of students and took side trips with them to places like Estonia and Luxembourg, although he declined to pedal bikes with them across the latter.

More than anything, he shared himself - telling stories from his 36-year career as a faculty member who taught at four different universities, and as a provost emeritus and consultant who has worked with multinational corporations in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Northern Africa.

As students balked at Dutch croquettes or unfamiliar French cheeses, Baker told them it could be much more exotic. He and wife Jan have munched on "bird tongues, chicken's feet, sea cucumbers, beef tendons, baby eels. We've had lots of interesting foods, mostly in China and Taiwan. Jan didn't really relish eating these things, but she always sampled the food and made sure not to embarrass our hosts."

Emphasizing the need for students to tell trip chaperones where they were going, especially on the weekends, Baker confessed that he and his wife had traveled to Morocco in Northern Africa without telling anyone. An armed member of a local militia forced Baker off their bus. "I really thought I was going to die, and nobody even knew where we were. Fortunately a Swedish student who spoke multiple languages intervened and convinced the Morrocan to let me back on the bus."

Norm Baker with Honors-PLUS, Sacre Coeur, Paris

Baker also doesn't hide the fact that he wasn't always as single minded or goal oriented as his Honors-PLUS apprentices sometimes seem. After high school, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a house painter. "Dad handed me a paintbrush and let me work with him for the summer. After painting the insides of closets with lead-based paint for several hot summer days, I came out sucking wind. I told my dad, 'I think I want to go to college.' And he said, 'I think that's a good idea,'" Baker says. His deep voice booms with laughter and is still touched with a Boston accent.

"It took me seven years to get my undergraduate degree. I started at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and it just didn't work out. Then I went to Northeastern." To make up for lost time after earning a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, he completed a master's and PhD in industrial management and management sciences at Northwestern University in three and half years. As a professor, he often consulted with companies like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and did research that the National Science Foundation supported for 12 consecutive years.

"When I stepped down as provost I wanted to work with students. And I wanted a shot at creating an honors program in business," says Baker, whose tenure as provost from 1984 to 1993 was marked by the formation of UC's All-University Honors Program, Writing Across the Curriculum and several programs reaffirming the university's commitment to undergraduate teaching.

Fall 2001 marked the freshmen year for UC's fifth Honors-PLUS class. "Students are beginning to understand that the program prepares them for a career, not just initial employment," says the Honors-PLUS founder and director, who is turning over the reins to a new director during 2002. "I know of no other program like it in the country. A Stanford professor once called a CBA colleague to find out how Honors-PLUS was taking students away from them," Baker adds.

Norm Baker and Carrie Foulkes, 2001, Paris

With retirement planned for the end of June 2002, Baker has one more chance to travel abroad with the students in the program he has worked so hard to create. This spring the third class of Honors-PLUS Scholars will embark on an international practicum very similar to the one completed by the second class in summer 2001. Baker is already looking forward to the journey, despite recent knee surgery that has him using a crutch for at least a while. It's likely he'll get more than a few hugs at the end of the trip, just as he did when the summer 2001 travel group went their separate ways in September.

After retirement, Bakers plans to stay active in the Honors-PLUS program as a consultant for at least five more years. "I don't want to be in charge anymore. I'm looking forward to being an adviser, not a director."

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