2020 Best Undergraduate Professors: Julia Lee Cunningham, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Julia Lee Cunningham of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business is a 2020 Poets&Quants Best Undergraduate Business School Professor

Julia Lee Cunningham

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

Michigan Ross

Julia Lee Cunningham doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a business school professor, to be sure. Her training is in political science and public policy. But it’s that unique background that strays from the traditional business disciplines like marketing, finance, or operations that make Lee Cunningham such a popular professor among current and former students and puts her on this year’s list of Best Undergraduate Business School Professors.

A National Geographic Fellow for the Making the Case for Nature program, Lee Cunningham has married her passions of self-narratives and emotions and wildlife protection and climate change. “I have started bringing together my research on narrative, morality, and emotions to better understand what makes people care about and act on important issues such as wildlife protection and climate change,” Lee Cunningham says. “It is all about how your mindset and narrative can drive significant behavioral change both at the individual level and the organizational level. This is what fascinates me.”

Lee Cunningham currently teaches a required year-long course for undergraduates planning on studying abroad called Developing Global Competency.

Current age: 37

At current institution since what year? 2015


  • Harvard University – Ph.D. in Public Policy; Master’s in Public Policy (MPP); and Master’s in Arts (AM)
  • Korea University – BA in Political Science/International Relations

List of courses you currently teach: For BBAs, I teach a required year-long course on Developing Global Competency for those who will be studying abroad. For MBAs, I teach an elective course on Bargaining & Influence Skills.


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I took a course by Max Bazerman on Behavioral Approaches to Decision Making and Negotiation in 2009 as a master’s student. At the time I was a student in a different discipline (international security), but I loved everything I was learning in that class. I could not stop talking about the papers and literally started dreaming about running experiments myself.  I ended up deciding to change my field of study and applied for a Ph.D. in Public Policy with an emphasis on judgment and decision-making. So decisions can be fateful – you just rarely know that ex-ante. I just happened to enroll in that one class that exposed me to an entirely new way of seeing the world. Now each year I have an opportunity to expose someone else to such a way of thinking and am incredibly fortunate to continue to be able to work with such brilliant colleagues and collaborators.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?  

I am researching how people can change the stories they tell themselves so that they start to see themselves as a valued contributor/leader across different contexts.  I’ve found that these self-narratives matter for subsequent behavior. For example, if you see yourself as a valued contributor, then this narrative facilitated information sharing in your team.  Most recently with generous support from the National Geographic Society, I have started bringing together my research on narrative, morality, and emotions to better understand what makes people care about and act on important issues such as wildlife protection and climate change. It is all about how your mindset and narrative can drive significant behavioral change both at the individual level and the organizational level. This is what fascinates me.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… a diplomat, or a food/travel writer. I love trying to understand people who are different from me, and I definitely love food – the more exotic the better!

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

I tend to think of myself more as an advisor than a teacher. I ask myself frequently: What are the things that I wish I had known when I was in my students’ shoes?  What can I teach my students so they achieve success in their careers and find meaning in their lives?

One word that describes my first-time teaching: Can’t-feel-my-face

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: I was once told that business students are often stereotyped as being “sharks”. I wish someone told me that in reality, I would be so impressed with the students I encounter.  My students have been far from sharks; they are open, curious, and want to make the world a better place.

Professor I most admire and why: Professor Francesca Gino at HBS (Best 40 Under 40 Professors in 2015) has been a wonderful mentor and a friend to me.  I admire her ability to make research “fun” despite the setbacks inherent in the research process, and her energy and optimism are truly contagious.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

I enjoy their entrepreneurial spirit and curiosity about the world.

What is most challenging?

Balancing fairness and compassion

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Humble

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Arrogant

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… someone who treats all of her students as her A students, even though I must follow the grading curve!


What are your hobbies?

Birdwatching & target shooting (and yes, these are mutually exclusive activities – I don’t shoot animals)

How will you spend your summer?

Some combination of reflection, research, and teaching prep

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Abruzzo, Italy

Favorite book(s): Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

The Good Wife & the Good Fight on CBS.  I like all their unapologetically bold characters and plots, and how they weave current affairs and debates into their storyline so brilliantly, in an effort to highlight the moral gray areas in our society.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

90s K-pop, as it reminds me of my youth


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… a curricular emphasis on business making significant positive social and environmental impact, and less emphasis on the ultimate maximization of shareholder value

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… improving the lives of people who are marginalized

I’m grateful for… the opportunity to pursue my passion through my research, teaching, and service

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say: “Julia is an area chair’s dream faculty member. Whatever the teaching assignment, she brings her creativity, warmth, authenticity, and smarts to the task. Julia has a fascinating background that informs her teaching and also a natural capacity to connect to young adults. She is a gem!”

  • Sue Ashford, Chair, Management and Organizations Department, Ross School of Business

“Business school classes are often vocational – data analytics, financial modeling, accounting – these disciplines translate directly into postgraduate employment. Yet, Professor Lee’s class transcended learning merely for the sake of outcome, and instead, emphasized the inherent value of learning itself. Rather than lecture on formulas and resign that students learn by rote, Professor Lee fostered a psychologically safe classroom wherein students were unafraid to challenge one another on their biases, or question the actions of powerful institutional actors. As I prepare to begin law school this fall, I am thankful that Professor Lee established a learning environment conducive to and respectful of constructive, ideologically diverse debate. Beyond the classroom, Professor Lee served as an invaluable resource while I honed my career aspirations. When I was most overwhelmed with recruiting and hamstrung by my own uncertainty for the future, Professor Lee provided me direction; she helped me realize that my self-actualization relied on pursuing a career I was intrinsically motivated to excel in. I am endlessly grateful that our conversations led me away from the traditional career paths traveled by business students, and towards a discipline best fit for me. To Ross students present and future: take full advantage of both Professor Lee’s class and mentorship. You will not regret it.”

  • Victor Simonte, University of Michigan Ross Class of 2020

“”Julia is an incredibly distinguished and knowledgeable professor, and enjoys sharing her unique experiences with students in engaging lectures. She encourages all students to participate, and creates an inclusive environment where students feel confident to contribute to discussions. As a previous student of hers, I was lucky to experience firsthand how she puts her research into practice. She sees the potential in every student, noting on the first day of class that we are all her ‘A students’, and she respects us equally as people. She promotes academic and personal growth, having students reflect on their goals at the beginning and end of her classes. Later, I had the opportunity to work for Julia as a Teaching Assistant, and got to know her better as an educator and person. Julia is the most compassionate professor, and her lessons go above and beyond the required coursework. For instance, teaching a class for students studying abroad in the wake of a pandemic posed many challenges, and Julia’s ability to empathize with students and adapt the course was wonderful to see. Julia truly cares about her students and actively works to improve their lives on campus. I am so excited to see that Julia is being recognized for her work; she elevates the University of Michigan and leads by example.”

  • Audrey Humphrey, University of Michigan Ross Class of 2020

“Professor Lee’s class was one of the most influential in my undergraduate business experience and shaping how we should view navigating social environments around us, both professionally and socially. Her eager willingness to take the time to get to know students both in the classroom and in the business school allowed me to feel very comfortable in looking up to her for guidance even after the class ended – a reflection of not just her enjoyment of teaching but also of the implicit understandings of connecting with people that she teaches in her curriculum.”

  • Katherine Qiao, University of Michigan Ross Class of 2019

“Professor Lee’s course in Management and Organization is easily one of my all time favorite courses taken while studying at Michigan. Not only was the material fascinating, but Professor Lee ensured the success of every one of her students. She spent countless hours preparing for each lesson and every lecture in turn was well received by the class. Professor Lee would create special office hours when her students needed extra help and served as a mentor to all of her students once the semester ended. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be taught by Professor Lee and am happy to have her as a lifelong mentor to support my personal and professional endeavors.”

  • Nathanial Rosenblum, University of Michigan Ross Class of 2019

“Julia is a phenomenal professor who has huge impact at our school and in our field. I have worked with her for five years and had the pleasure of teaching two different courses with her. Julia shines in the classroom for three reasons. First, she makes research come to life by incorporating simulations that allow students to experience firsthand the difficulties and joys of business challenges. For example, rather than lecturing on how managers face ethical dilemmas, Julia will incorporate a case study activity in which students have to think deeply about how they would devise equitable systems for distributing organ donations. Second, Julia brings a breadth of experiences to her students; She has interviewed North Korean defectors, and is a National Geographic fellow, among other adventures! She encourages students to think expansively, introducing them to a wide range of perspectives that she brings with her into the classroom from her numerous affiliate roles, including the Erb Institute, the Sanger Leadership Center, and the Center for Positive Organizations. She is also a leading expert on behavioral ethics and self-narratives and has done extensive research in the field, making a conscious effort to complement laboratory studies with data collected from within organizations. From this wide range of experiences, Julia has an arsenal of fascinating and didactic tales which she weaves into lectures. Lastly, Julia is a natural empath. She loves her students and believes in their potential. They recognize and respond to this, becoming the best versions of themselves from her influence! Despite her excellent credentials and long list of accolades, Julia is modest and other-oriented, always seeking to use her position to empower others and amplify the research of her colleagues.  She is one of the only faculty members who has worked with nearly every PhD student in our department; they are drawn to her creative research designs, her strong work ethic, and her willingness to offer help and guidance in times of need. She is not only an incredible researcher and professor, but is an all-around wonderful human being!”

  • Laura Sonday, Management and Organizations Department, Ross School of Business

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