It’s been said that good teaching is more art than science. This in mind, Poets&Quants embarked on a mission to find the Picassos among undergraduate business school professors.
We put out a call for nominations and what we’ve gathered is a group of top profs whose teaching is known to transcend the hour-long lecture in a way that transforms students’ minds as well as hearts.
There are some common characteristics among the professors on our inaugural list of Top 40 Undergraduate Business Professors. Everything starts and ends with an innate passion to see students do more than just thrive in their careers. These teachers want to see their students succeed at life.
Yet with these 40 B-school profs, the word passion doesn’t seem to serve justice. They want to see students flourish, and in some cases go to great lengths to make it happen.
Ron Gebhardtsbauer, Penn State actuarial science professor, proudly admits to being one of the extremists.
“When a class has been timid at participating in a discussion or answering questions, I’ve been known to stand on a student’s desk (like in the movie Dead Poets Society) and encourage them to be more confident, as they will be masters of the universe someday,” Gebhardtsbauer says.
Others may not be as theatrical in their approach but their passion is no less evident. From how they structure their courses to the industry connections they cultivate on behalf of students to the “coffice hours” professors like Juan Serpa of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management hold on weekends so students have greater access — these professors give their all to everything they put their minds to.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Another common character trait among top professors: They have a human side and they aren’t afraid to show it.
UNC accounting professor CJ Skender lets his personality shine through his style of dress. He’s known for his wide array of multicolored bowties, eye-catching socks, and fancy suits.
“I wear my suit jacket for the first half of every class and take it off the second half,” Skender says. “I wear bow ties on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and neck ties on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.”
He also plays music at the start of every class. When the UNC men’s Division I basketball team won the national championship this year, “We Are the Champions” was in frequent rotation.
For Ravi Dharwadkar at Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management, students are practically family — especially in one remarkable case. Dharwadkar and his wife once surveyed undergraduate students on their favorite baby names and what their parents did to encourage and/or annoy them when they were growing up. “Ninety-nine percent of the class offered words of advice and encouragement that I still enjoy years later,” he says.
Babies can really bring people together. Notre Dame’s Kristen Collett-Schmitt recalls a sick husband leaving her with no choice but to take her infant daughter to class one day. “I strapped the three-month-old to a baby carrier, hoped for the best, and conducted a two-hour review session with a packed room of students. I learned that evening that my kid increases my popularity among students by roughly 200%.”
EXPECT A CHALLENGE
If you’re fortunate enough to be taught by one of the top undergraduate professors on this list, be prepared to be challenged and asked to meet high expectations.
Babson College’s Tina Opie brings a huge amount of energy and humor to the classroom, but she combines it with a real seriousness and respect for what she teaches around leadership and diversity in organizations.
“Tina is not afraid to tackle tough subjects in her class and really gets students to understand the impact of race, gender, and ethnicity inside organizations,” said one 40 Under 40 nomination for the organizational behavior professor. “She doesn’t tolerate B.S. and isn’t afraid to challenge students who don’t provide thoughtful answers; yet she does it in a way that doesn’t demean or demotivate.”
Yakov Bart, assistant professor of marketing at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School Business, is also known for his well-timed humor during class discussions. He’s applauded by faculty and students alike for getting undergrads to confidently and independently think for themselves.
“I had never been in a course where students were so actively encouraged to challenge each other’s notions,” one student said of Bart’s methods. “However, I don’t believe this to be coincidence; I believe wholeheartedly that the method with which Professor Bart teaches is artful and intentional. He does an incredible job of facilitating learning while still enforcing independent thought.”
“I found myself approaching problems in more nuanced ways, digging deeper to understand the stories told by numbers,” another student said. “For this personal growth, I have Professor Bart to thank.”