2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Stephen Conroy, University of San Diego

Stephen Conroy

Professor of Economics and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Business Programs

University of San Diego School of Business

Stephen Conroy is an award-winning professor who has published more than two dozen journal articles and chapters. Joining the University of San Diego School of Business in 2004, Conroy’s research and teaching focuses on microeconomics, wealth creation, and real estate and housing economics. Currently, Conroy is researching the impact of spatial location on home value. By examining residential San Diego, Conroy recently proved what many already thought: housing costs in towns on coastal California increase significantly the closer homes are to the ocean. Outside of the classroom, you might find Conroy at a local karaoke bar. Conroy also enjoys playing the drums and typical to San Diego, spends free time working out, swimming, and reading.

Age: 53

Education: PhD in Economics from the University of Southern California 

At current institution since: 2004

List of courses you currently teach: Senior Seminar, Managerial Economics, Microfinance and Wealth Creation, International Business Practicum, Principles of Microeconomics 

Twitter handle: @sconroy1000

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Earning the University Professor Award in 2012.  It was based on outstanding teaching and research supporting the mission and goals of the University of San Diego.  There is only one given out in the School of Business each year.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I stepped in front of a classroom at the University of Southern California as a graduate teaching assistant.  Before that time, I had been planning to do research either in private business, government or at a policy institute.  The thrill I got from watching students go from “what?” to “I get it!” in just a few minutes was intoxicating and quickly led to a fascination with teaching and pedagogy.  Even now, more than 20 years after that first experience as a graduate assistant, and even if I am teaching something I have taught many times before, I still enjoy the experience of watching students’ reactions because it’s always new for them! I really enjoy taking a complex concept/problem and breaking it down for students in a way that is intelligible.  When I was a graduate student I was never impressed by professors who were brilliant but could not explain things well so I have tried my hardest to be the opposite of that (even if it means that students realize that I’m not brilliant!).

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Exhilarating!

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I am currently researching the effect of spatial location on property values.  I have done this in many different contexts including investigating the effect on housing prices of locating near (a) the Pacific Coast, (b) an elementary school, (c) a home that was a short-sale, or even what happens to prices of condominium units as you go up one more floor in a high-rise condo.  I think the most important discovery was the “coastal premium” for residential housing in San Diego. While everyone assumed it existed before our paper was published due to “average” analysis from somewhat-similar studies in other coastal locations, no one had actually demonstrated specifically how this premium changed as you move away from the coast and I think people were surprised (as I was) by the steepness of the land-rent gradient moving from the coast.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? It happened in a remote village in Guatemala.  Teaching a course in Microfinance and Wealth Creation in Guatemala, I took students to visit a group of women who were taking out small loans from a microfinance institution (MFI).  One of the primary purposes of the site visit was to meet with the borrowers in order to learn about the impact of microlending on their businesses. The bus ride to this village was bumpy, along a long, windy road and when we arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a large group of indigenous women, many of whom were carrying small children and to my surprise none of them spoke Spanish.  As such, we had to rely on two interpreters—one who translated from their native Mayan language to Spanish, and another who translated from Spanish to English for my students. We wanted to learn more from the borrowers and they wanted to learn more about us but the burden of translation soon became cumbersome for all but the simplest of questions so the “class” essentially ground to a halt. At that point, we were humbled and honored by the incredible generosity of strangers as the women invited us to a meal at their village.  Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow for us to take this opportunity but we were forever grateful for their generosity and let them know it in various heart-felt ways. The discussions we had on the way back to Antigua that day were rich, taking twists and turns—much like the bus we were traveling in—that I had never anticipated when we started out that morning and which certainly took us much beyond the textbook on microfinance.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? Soon after arriving at my first job as an assistant professor in 1999, I was asked to join a committee called the “E-Commerce Committee.”  This very important and high-profile committee was charged with developing new courses to incorporate this “new phenomenon” called e-commerce.  The committee worked very hard to develop new courses in each business discipline that would incorporate e-commerce as a stand-alone sub-discipline of each field.  We had fun names for the courses like “e-conomics” and “e-accounting.” However, by the time the work was nearly complete, we realized that while there may be a need for some stand-alone courses, e-commerce was quickly becoming such an integral part of business that it would be incorporated into nearly every business course, not treated as a separate phenomenon. The lesson here is that business schools have to adapt and adjust to changes taking place in the business world—which sometimes happen at warp speed.  Business education has to remain current, interesting and relevant.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” A consultant.  I enjoy the challenge of learning new ideas and concepts associated new cases in consulting.  Each case brings new challenges and new ways to incorporate business or economic theory and empirical analysis.  I had the opportunity to work as a visiting economist on my sabbatical in 2010-11. I think faculty should be encouraged to have experiences like this in order to provide relevant experiences and entertaining/informative stories for their classes.

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: You really don’t get summers off! Summers are the best time to work on research, update courses and prepare for new ones.  If you actually take more than about a month “off” each summer on vacation, etc., you’re probably slacking off!

Name of the professor you most admire and why: I’m going to cheat here and name three. Dr. Joseph Phillips (currently Dean of the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University) was the first one who turned me on to economics and I am forever grateful for his inspiration and dedication.  In addition to teaching a fascinating, well-organized class, he used real-world issues in his Principles classes which showed the connection between economic theory and practice even at the elementary levels. I also admire two professors at the University of Southern California:  Jeffrey Nugent and Richard Easterlin. Professor Nugent is the hardest-working professor I have ever known and he always has time for every student, even long after that student has taken his class. From Professor Easterlin, I learned how to structure a Principles of Macroeconomics Class and his History of Economic Development was also the most interesting class I ever took.  He also shepherded me through the dissertation process and for that he deserves huge credit!

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? I enjoy watching them learn the material and apply it to real-world cases.  Business students are generally interested in learning how the world actually functions so there is a great opportunity to incorporate this into the class.

What’s the biggest challenge? These days, faculty are always competing for the attention of their students—both inside and outside of the classroom.  With the advent of smart phones (and now smart watches and who knows what awesome gadget will be next!) students are now more distracted than ever.  And whether we realize it or not, the competition continues even after students leave classroom and may be tempted to spend hours playing the latest addictive video game with friends or even people they don’t know around the world, rather than reading their favorite textbooks or even serious professional magazines.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? I have had two students go on to become Econ professors!  This is really exciting to see students choose the profession which I have enjoyed so much.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? I can’t think of anything.   

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? If you compare the life of someone growing up when I did to the life of a student today, one major difference is that being bored was much more common back in my day.  Smart phones provide a constant source of mental and emotional stimulation so students are less comfortable just sitting and listening. To adjust for that, I spend more time actively engaging the class in conversation and spontaneous questions and less time lecturing than I used to when I first started in 1999.  I guess it is ironic that I’m becoming more like Socrates in order to deal with a very modern phenomenon.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Work hard!  I think hard work is underrated.  Hollywood has glamorized “genius” to the point that many students believe that intelligence (alone) is what drives success.  While being smart is helpful, it will not be sufficient to get an A in my class. There is simply no substitute for coming to class, working hard and putting in the time.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” A fair grader.  I am probably in the middle of the pack when it comes to grading—not too hard, not too easy.  I almost never get student complaints about my grading so I believe students generally feel they earned whatever grade they received.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? The Mission by Ennio Morricone.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student. Blue-Collar

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Slacker

“If my students can think critically, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: I am a drummer and enjoy karaoke.

What are your hobbies? Working out, swimming, reading.

How did you spend your summer? I traveled a lot!  I went to Guatemala, Hawaii and Florida and attended a conference in Seattle.  I also spent a good deal of time at the local beaches during August, as we had record high beach temperatures in San Diego.

Favorite place to vacation: Cancun, Mexico

Favorite book: Nonfiction: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. Fiction: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Favorite movie and/or television show: Breaking Bad

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Classic rock; Jackson Browne

Bucket list item #1: Mediterranean cruise, including Rome and Athens.

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment? I think we need to adjust our curriculum to reflect the changes in the economy, which is now largely services-based, data-driven and global.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Critical thinking, project-based, experiential learning and international experiences, with a healthy exposure to social entrepreneurship

“And much less of this…” Wrote memorization of facts and figures (as interesting as those are).

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: Continuing to do what I do now, but doing it more efficiently.  Emails would be finished by 9:00 am and I would have the rest of the day to teach, do research and meet with students.