Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Business Profs that Make a Difference

I recently finished reading "Tuesdays with Morrie," by Mitch Albom, a book that I very much enjoyed. The book is filled with numerous memorable quotes attributed to Professor Morrie Schwartz, a former Professor at Brandeis University, on life, on living, and on education. Mitch Albom, who was a former student of his, captured in this wonderful book not only his deep affection and caring for this very special professor, but also the wisdom and love of life of this exceptional educator.

There was one part in the book, though, that I strongly disagreed with. Albom writes in the chapter, "The Professor, Part Two," that Morrie's classes at Brandeis were light on what you'd call "career skills" and heavy on "personal development."

And because of this, business and law students today might look at Morrie as foolishly naive about his contributions. How much money did the students go on to make? How many big-time cases did they win?

Then again, how many business or law students ever visit their old professors once they leave? Morrie's students did that all the time.

Albom, in his book, captured the essence of what makes a great teacher, and the book is a testament also to an exceptional writer as he takes the "final class" with his beloved professor through the final stages of his serious illness until his death.

As debates rage on regarding student evaluations of teachers at the college level, with Dr. Stanley Fish's provocative recent piece in The New York Times, as well as his followup with links to many thoughtful comments and responses, it is clear that the impact of a great teacher cannot be measured simply after the class and semester are over with a short questionnaire and evaluation form. Such a myopic but prevalent perspective may be convenient from an administrative point of view but does not measure true greatness in terms of instruction and lasting impact.

Those who were once students and who come back years and even decades after graduation to see a professor realize this, for sure.

In our local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, there is a front page article today on one of my colleagues, Professor Richard "Dick" Simpson, who is an accounting professor at the Isenberg School at UMass Amherst. Professor Simpson has been teaching for 42 years and his former students keep their accounting class notes for as long as thirty years. His remarkable influence on business education and on individual students has been recognized with numerous teaching awards.

One of Professor Simpson's present students, Carmelina Romano, who is a mother of two children (and who instead of bedtime stories read Professor Simpson's accounting class notes to her two young children) and was formerly homeless, was also featured in the article. She would bring her children to class, with his permission, studied about 20 hours a week for his class alone, and her 4 year old son would sometimes answer questions posed by Simpson in class to the fascination of the college students.

Ms. Romano wrote a letter nominating Simpson for the Mass Society of CPAs educator of the year and then hounded everyone who could possibly be involved with that decision to make sure that he received this honor.

Professor Simpson ended up receiving the Society's Career Achievement Award for Excellence in Accounting Education and stood with Romano when he got it.

So, business professors can make a difference!

When I returned from the ALIO-INFORMS conference, which took place in Argentina, 2 weeks ago, I found a business card under my office door. A former student of mine in the first class that I ever taught as a professor had left his business card under my door. He had been a student in my MBA class and was working very hard at a menial job to advance his education. To that class I brought my Brown University PhD diploma to show some students, who were mid-level managers, who doubted that I was a professor since I reminded them of their granddaughters.

The message on the business card said:

Dr. Nagurney:

It's been 25 years so I thought I would stop by and say hello!

Call me sometime.

This former student now has a top executive-level position with a major automobile company and his daughter will be matriculating at UMass in the Fall. I remember him just like yesterday. We will see each other in September.