Our friend and colleague, Susan Chaplinsky, passed away on November 28. So many of us have been saddened by this loss. She was a great talent and a wonderful citizen at Darden and in the wider profession. The outpouring of sentiment (see this summary on LinkedIn compiled by Pedro Matos) conveys the reach of Susan’s impact. To all this, I want to offer my views as a teaching colleague, a co-author with her, and as a former Dean: she inspired me (and I believe many) with her intellect, wit, empathy, and determination.
- Intellect: Her mind was razor-sharp. We knew this from the credentials she brought to Darden. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Illinois, she successfully braved the tough Ph.D. program at University of Chicago (with the iconic Merton Miller as her thesis supervisor), and had already impressed students, journal editors, and colleagues with her mastery of finance. She was fearless in calling out sloppy thinking but usually did so by asking questions rather than haranguing a speaker—when she started asking pointed questions, you knew you were in for some course correction. Her intellectual integrity was absolute. In writing field-based case materials with her, I saw that she had an uncanny instinct for explaining the paradoxes of practice in terms of incentives and expectations that created unusual outcomes. In all, Susan strengthened our school’s culture of research, discussion, and curiosity.
- Wit: Susan’s dry sense of humor amused students, put strangers at ease, and on occasion defused a tense faculty meeting. She didn’t rely on memorized jokes or sarcasm. Rather, she bantered lightly with an audience, typically in ways to expose a surprising perspective on a subject. She was an avid sports fan, especially for the Chicago Bears, and could recount with a twinkle in her eyes the famous coaches, especially Mike Ditka and Vince Lombardi.
- Empathy: Martin Luther King once encouraged us to combine a tough mind and a tender heart, a combination that many intellectuals find impossible. Susan managed to practice the impossible. I saw her give very difficult career advice to students and colleagues—but in a way that managed to lift them up. While I was Dean, I sought her advice on dilemmas and found it to be straightforward, wise, and constructive. She never left a conversation without letting you know what she thought—she was direct but expressed her views in ways that created no burn. Susan’s innate kindness helped to set a high tone for the entire Darden community.
- Determination: Susan never went half-way toward a goal. If she was in, she was all in. I wrote academic articles with her and saw how against the technical obstacles and critical comments from editors, she always motored on. Never in my years of acquaintance did I hear her complain about anything. The obituary posted by her family noted that “At the age of 12 Susan contracted Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Prior to this Susan was tall, athletic, and active. Although health issues were to remain a part of Susan’s life, she embodied what is possible when excuses are not accepted. Her brave determination led to many accomplishments.” She never talked about her health challenges—nor did my colleagues or I have any reason to inquire. But I found that her quiet courage to get on with life was an inspiration.
In all, Susan was a tremendous contributor to the Darden community; a professional performing at a high level, an inspiration, and a warm colleague. About 15 Darden professors gathered last evening at a local pub to toast her life, work, and contributions to the community. We regaled one another with stories by and about Susan, creating a moment not of sadness, but of joy and humor—I think this is the kind of memorial Susan would have enjoyed. She occupies a high place not only in our minds, but also in our hearts.