The dean of the new business school at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University says the time is right for a set of new academic programs to equip students for a future that will be increasingly technological and global.

Dennis W. Kelly came on board last October as dean of the Q. William Hammack School of Business, returning to metro Atlanta after an eight-year stint in Washington, D.C., with the Smithsonian Institution.

Dennis Kelly, dean of Oglethorpe University’s Hammack School of Business, speaks to the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce Jan. 17. (Paula Heller/Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce)

A $50 million gift — the largest in Oglethorpe’s history — from Hammack, an alumnus and former CEO of C.W. Matthews Contracting Co., has made it possible for the 183-year-old liberal-arts university at 4484 Peachtree Road to elevate its business department to school status.

“A lot of small, liberal-arts colleges in the Northeast and Midwest won’t make it,” Kelly told a breakfast meeting of the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 17. “But Oglethorpe is strong, and it’s willing to change and adapt.”

The business school, scheduled to open in the fall, will roll out a strategic plan in the late spring or early summer, Kelly said. It will be part of the undergraduate program and may offer certificate programs, but has no plans to offer master’s degrees.

Kelly said Oglethorpe expects to grow its business-program numbers from slightly more than 300 students currently to as many as 600, creating courses in marketing and finance to go with established strengths in accounting and economics.

An emphasis on experiential learning, through student internships, also will be a priority, Kelly said, adding that Oglethorpe’s move nearly 65 years ago to a core curriculum for all students already provides an edge in the workplace.

“We think that makes our students different, better and special,” he said. “Bill Hammack thinks the combination of the core curriculum [and new programs] will make our next generation of leaders robot-proof.

“A liberal arts education will be the key to doing things that robots can’t do.”

According to Kelly, about 60 percent of current jobs will be either eliminated or impacted by machine learning and artificial intelligence. For example, 4 million jobs for checkout clerks will dwindle to 500,000 over the next 10 years, he said.

In some fields, the U.S. has serious catching-up to do: China graduates 1 million engineers a year, he said, compared to 75,000 in the U.S.

With this brave new world as a backdrop, students will need at least some familiarity with coding and business analytics, Kelly said, even if they don’t end up working in those areas specifically.

Forty percent of Oglethorpe’s 1,250 students are first-generation college students, Kelly said, which presents challenges in getting some of them up to speed. Asked about trends that the university is seeing, he identified three.

“We’re seeing that writing skills have declined across the board,” he said. “We’re also seeing that the demand for analytics has gone up — big data is a new skill that’s in demand. And there is a big disparity between those who are well-prepared [for college work] and those who are not.”

Oglethorpe’s Compass academic advising program, begun in 2017, has helped the university achieve its highest retention rate in 10 years, according to assistant provost Beth Concepcion. Its March to May mentoring program also has been beneficial, she said, and she encouraged chamber members to become part of it.

Kelly served for seven years as president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta before moving on to the Smithsonian, where he was director of the National Zoological Park and Conservation Biology Institute. Previously, he was president and CEO of Green Mountain Energy Co. and held administrative positions with Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.

He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Harvard.

Kelly said he and his wife, Debbie, barely recognize Brookhaven this time around.

“We’re stunned by the enormous changes we’ve seen,” he said. “When we drive around, it’s amazing. You see all the residential developments, and it’s hard to find contractors because there’s so much going on.”

Alan Goodman, president of the Brookhaven chamber, said the new business school at Oglethorpe can only be a plus.

“It’s a super step for the city to have a business school right here,” Goodman said.

–Doug Carroll