Priya Kannan Belongs at SJSU

by | Mar 18, 2024 | Academics, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured, Leadership

Priya Kannan, Dean of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

When Priya Kannan, dean of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business, says that San José State University is a lifelong community, she means it. In fact, she’s living proof: she got her master’s degree in industrial and organizational (IO) psychology from SJSU in 2005, and then came back as dean in August 2023.

Her road to SJSU (and back again) involved hard work, planning and passion. She lived half her life in India, earning several degrees including a Bachelors of Commerce with emphasis in Accounting & Finance, Graduate of the Institute of Cost & Works Accountants of India, and a Master of Arts in Personnel Management & Industrial relations, the equivalent of an MBA. 

Although her primary degree was in accounting and finance, she moved into human resources. “I very quickly realized that people are more interesting than numbers,” she says. While growing up in India during the era of liberalization, privatization and globalization, and working at India’s first cell phone company, she developed an interest in change management, innovation, and adaptability in business.

But she’d always had another dream. “Ever since I was five, I knew I wanted to be a professor,” she explains. “Because when you’re five, you know that your teacher is the most powerful person in the world. I thought that was fun — all the kids listened to you. So I wanted to be a professor.”

She taught as a guest lecturer and visiting faculty member at various universities in India. And when she got married and moved to the United States, she knew the next step: a Ph.D. 

However, life circumstances did not allow her to immediately pursue this goal, although she was accepted into PhD programs with full financial aid. She then found a job in Silicon Valley and had a baby. All the while, her passion to pursue graduate school continued. When her baby was seven months old, Kannan enrolled in the IO psychology program at SJSU.

“Coming to SJSU for my degree was good for my child and good for me,” she says. “I was able to manage my home and it provided me the flexibility I needed to study as a mom.”

During her time as a graduate student at SJSU, she learned and conducted research (including a project with NASA that created a framework for studying the safety climate in the commercial aviation industry). She also received the Sally Casanova pre-doctoral scholarship, which covered her application fees to doctoral programs and provided her access to research opportunities at top research schools.

She went on to earn her doctorate in business at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and followed that with a teaching position at the University of San Diego, where she progressed rapidly from assistant to full tenured professor. In fact, she was the first woman at the business school to be promoted early to full professor and the first person of color to be promoted early to associate professor. She eventually became the associate dean of the Knauss School of Business, and remained at USD until she returned to SJSU in August 2023. 

She always wanted to come back to San José State. “This is the most transformative university, as we say, and it gave me opportunities that I would never have had if I didn’t go here,” she says. “This is my passion. This is where I can make change.”

Memorable moments

As dean, she’s quick to emphasize the importance of everyone’s contributions to the university: students and faculty, of course, but also staff. This is partly due to personal experience; she remembers a moment in her own life in which a staff member played a crucial role.

When Kannan was first accepted into her master’s program at SJSU, she walked into the office and asked a staff member at the front desk for tips. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m new here, are there any professors that I could talk to? Are there research assistantships?’” Kannan remembers. The woman, Phyllis Nakamura, told her there was a professor, Sharon Glazer, who’d just gotten a grant to work with NASA, that she should speak with.

“Sharon ended up being my thesis advisor, and she’s the one that has supported me throughout my career journey until today,” Kannan says. “If Phyllis hadn’t told me about her, I wouldn’t have gone down that path. A staff member in the front office knew enough to tell a student what needed to happen, and the impact she made was huge. I would have never gotten the Sally Casanova scholarship if I hadn’t been working with Sharon.” 

Lessons in leadership

She uses this as an example of the “shared mission” she feels with the larger SJSU community. “Our commitment to our mission and students is quite unparalleled,” she says.

“The proof is in the pudding. A lot of times when new leaders come in, they change the people on their teams. But I haven’t changed anybody — they’re great. I want to work with the team I have because I love them.”

Kannan emphasizes three qualities in both leadership and employees: integrity, compassion and excellence. She also places a high emphasis on transparency and inclusion, along with belonging, which she believes fosters diversity and equity along the way.

Dean Priya Kannan with SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson.

Dean Priya Kannan with SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

“People think diversity is good, like it’s something nice to do,” she says, “and you’re being a good citizen by giving people opportunities. As a business leader, I come from the other side and say, it’s not just about being good. You cannot be innovative and you cannot be competitive unless you’re diverse.”

She sees this as another unique selling point of SJSU. “Over 80% of our students at the college are from minority backgrounds and close to 50% are first-generation students,” she says.

“We have the depth and diversity of experiences that give us a competitive advantage. You are never going to hear these points of view anywhere else. We’re at the heart of Silicon Valley, and the composition of our student, faculty and staff populations can help us lead the charge of inclusive innovation.”

“That’s how I see diversity,” she summarizes. “A: It’s an absolute good, and a good, human thing. B: If you don’t believe in being a good human being, you should at least emphasize and prioritize diversity because it’s good for your business innovations.”

Her passion and advocacy are apparent to all around her, even at the beginning of her tenure as dean. “Priya Kannan has been an amazing addition to the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business,” says SJSU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Vincent del Casino, Jr. “She comes not only with great energy but also with an incredible intellect, which is helping her lead conversations within the college and beyond it about the future of business education.”

He adds, “To say she has hit the ground running would be an understatement. Dean Kannan has already made so many important connections with our alumni and broader business community. I am very excited to see what Dean Kannan will do in the near future; it is clear, however, that Lucas College is on the rise under her leadership.” 

Advocating for the future

Kannan’s vision for the College of Business is bold, a deepening and an expansion of SJSU’s mission. “Our job at the college is to empower business leaders to design the future. We’re about powering Silicon Valley, but we’re also empowering business leaders to design the future.”

Dean Priya Kannan interacts with students at Meet the Firms, an event to help promote job opportunities for undergraduates.

Dean Priya Kannan interacts with students at the Meet the Firms event. Photo by Adriana Avila.

She sees this as directly tied to questions of diversity. “Imagine empowering leaders who come from the backgrounds that our students do, so that those are the leaders who are designing the future,” she says. That’s my mission, and I’m very optimistic about it.”

And once again, Kannan herself is proof of this. “I’m the first woman and the first person of color to lead the college,” she explains. “That’s important for other women to know, so they realize that even though it’s hard, it’s doable. That’s why I always bring up my family. I have a husband, I have two children.” She wants other women to know that it’s possible to achieve success as both a working parent and a professional.

It isn’t easy, but it can be simple, and perhaps that’s what she most wants to impart, about herself, SJSU, and the College of Business: work hard, work smart and you can accomplish great things. 

She summarizes it all with a quote from the Bollywood movie “Three Idiots,” which she says resonated with her and became her motto: “Pursue excellence, and success will follow.” 

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