Thursday, October 8, 2015

10:14 AM

A son’s quest helps former airline CEO Gerald Gitner receive his Simon MBA—47 years later. By Charla Stevens Kucko

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Dean Andrew Ainslie (left) presents Gerald Gitner his MBA.
Photo: Max Schulte/Democrat and Chronicle
Sitting in a classroom in 1968 with his MBA nearly complete, Gerald Gitner knew he wanted to pursue a career in the airline industry. All that remained of his time at business school was his final thesis. Gitner chose the topic, “Government Bureaucracy in Securing Airline Routes,” with the premise that such routes were randomly determined by political connections and not based on data. Gitner’s professor disagreed with his premise and rejected the thesis for being insufficiently quantitative without enough data to support the argument.

Gitner thus received an incomplete in his sole remaining course. But life carried on, and he married Deanne. Undaunted, they left Rochester and headed for New York City, where Gitner landed a job in marketing at Trans World Airlines (TWA); at the time, TWA was the world’s third-largest airline. In just four years, Gitner became the youngest vice president in TWA history.

“Looking back, I was well prepared,” Gitner says. “A nickname for me at TWA was ‘Numbers,’ because I asked questions like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘Does it make any money?’ Most staff weren’t asking those kinds of questions.”

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Gitner’s career soared with his ability to apply quantitative methods and a different way of thinking. He was considered a titan of the airline industry, and his résumé included two stints at TWA where he was vice president and later CEO; a senior executive at Texas International Airlines; vice chairman and CFO of Pan American World Airways; president and co-founder of People Express Airlines; chairman of Pan Am World Services; and president of Texas Air Corp., the holding company for Continental Airlines and New York Air. The one thing missing from his résumé was three elusive letters: MBA.

That is until this past spring when his son, Seth, a journalism professor at Syracuse University, sent a pivotal e-mail to Dean Andrew Ainslie. “I’d heard of people getting their degrees later in life based on project work, and I thought if I could tell someone my father’s story, that his success in the airline industry could be deserving of finally getting that degree,” Seth Gitner explains. So he took a chance, wrote an e-mail telling his father’s story, and hit send. That evening, Seth’s phone rang. It was Dean Ainslie.

“After reading the e-mail, I did a Google search on Gerry Gitner, and there were numerous articles about him,” Ainslie recalls. “I thought, this is the real thing, and that night, I gave Seth a call.”
After multiple conversations with senior staff and the Simon registrar, and locating the 47-year-old transcript—no small task in itself—it was determined there were provisions in the Academic Handbook on students who did not complete their coursework that would allow for granting the degree based on real-life experience. “Gerry’s experience in building an airline and leading TWA through an incredibly difficult time in its history absolutely passed muster, and we agreed he was eligible for the degree,” Ainslie says.

There was one problem: Seth hadn’t told his father yet. What happened next was a classic father-son exchange. “I called my father and said, ‘This is what I did for you,’ ” Seth explains. “He had no idea what I was doing, and I wasn’t completely sure how to tell him, but I needed his permission to get the transcript.”

Surprised by news that seemed to come out of the blue, Seth’s father responded, “You did what?” but then added, “Of course I’m not mad.”

Father and son returned to Rochester in May for the degree presentation and a question-and-answer session with members of the Simon community, moderated by Dean Ainslie. Almost 50 years after attending the School, Gerald Gitner finally received his MBA.

“It was a very moving experience and something I hadn’t contemplated,” Gitner says. “When Dean Ainslie presented it to me, I said, ‘It took me longer than it took Moses to travel to the Promised Land to get this degree. But Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and I did, I feel a great debt. I haven’t touted the fact that I went to the University of Rochester’s business school, nor have I hidden it. But now, I’m wearing it proudly.”

“This has to be the single most unusual story I’ve heard in 20 years in academia,” Ainslie says. “It’s extraordinary and a huge part of our legacy as a university that we had no idea about.” Ainslie says what’s most astonishing is that it all came from Seth’s e-mail note. “This has been a fantastic experience. I will be able to tell this story for the rest of my life. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
It is one more step on the former Fortune 500 CEO’s journey, one that has been anything but uneventful. Currently a private investor, Gitner is a principal of Cross Continent Capital LLC, an investment group he cofounded, and chairman of eJet Aviation Holdings Inc. and of D. G. Associates Inc., a firm providing advisory services to everything from startups to multibillion-dollar companies. He is also a director of masFlight, a company providing data warehousing and analysis for vertical enterprise markets.

In addition, Gitner is a generous supporter of higher education. He is a trustee emeritus of Boston University and a past trustee of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the American College of Management and Technology. He is a past member of the Chancellor’s Council of the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a present member of Lynn University’s College of Business Board of Advisors. Gitner is also chairman of the Financial Advisory Board of the Town of Highland Beach, Florida, where he and Deanne live.

Seth found that being the son of an airline CEO had its benefits. “Growing up, we used to fly everywhere and it was great,” he recalls. “We got to go wherever Dad went. But I took a different career route toward photography and video, and now, education and academia.” Seth is a graduate of RIT.

For Seth, helping his dad finally get his MBA was an opportunity to show the former airline executive how proud he is to be his son. “I want to personally thank Dean Ainslie for putting forth the effort to make it happen,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

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