Darden: Where Great Teachers Are Gods

by John A. Byrne on

Master teacher Yiorgos Allayannis at work in a Darden classroom

The day’s assigned case, “The Weekend That Changed Wall Street,” is meant to provoke a thoughtful and provocative discussion. It is a deep dive into the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, an event that shocked the financial world and helped to trigger the severe global recession.

So the first question that finance professor Yiorgos Allayannis scribbles on the blackboard in classroom 190 at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business evokes Shakespearean overtones: “To bail out or not to bail out.”

It turns out that it’s not the only question on this Monday (Feb. 20), but it is the first one asked of the MBA students in this highly popular elective course on Financial Institutions and Markets. Most of the students who raise their hands favor the government’s decision to let the investment banking firm go bust. Only eight students believe it was a mistake.

Cold calling one MBA after another, Allayannis is drawing out the arguments for and against a bail out of Lehman before delving into the intricacies of the commercial paper market and credit default swaps, which are central to the case. When he asks a student why the commercial paper market exists, Allayannis is given a fairly crisp definition: these are short-term loans used to cover inventory expenses, accounts receivables, and the working capital need of investment-grade companies.

“That’s accounting language I don’t understand,” he shouts back. “I want feelings and emotions, poetry. If the market dries up, it will affect the GEs and the Intels of the world. There will be no salaries, no jobs, no company. Where is this stopping? In a park downtown,” Allayannis says dramatically.

IN THE CLASSROOM, HE MOVES AROUND LIKE A HUMAN TORNADO

The 46-year-old, Greek-born professor looks a little like a young Clint Eastwood. He’s trim and tall, just over six feet, with a friendly angular face and light blue eyes. In the classroom, he moves around like a human tornado, whirling this way and that, up and down the tiered steps in the center of the class, waving his arms in the air, raising and lowering his voice as if an actor on a stage. At times, he is nearly breathless and perspiring from the whirlwind of action.

“He starts by drawing you to the edge of your seat with a remarkably passionate and engaging teaching style, and then he keeps you there by driving you to make and defend specific, time-critical decisions rather than accepting easy generalizations” says Nathan DeLuke, who graduated last year.

There is no doubt that he is a master teacher who can make finance—not the easiest of business school subjects—compelling and entertaining. Great teachers are common in many business school classrooms from Harvard to Northwestern. But they are especially common at the Darden School, the only B-school in the U.S. to score in the top 20th percentile of BusinessWeek’s student satisfaction surveys over 24 years for exceptional teaching (see “Business Schools With The Best Teaching Faculty.”)

ONE OF MANY SUPERSTAR TEACHERS AT THE DARDEN SCHOOL

Allayannis is one of many superstar teachers at Darden, and his evolution here provides much insight into how this school has made teaching an integral and defining part of its culture. That wouldn’t be such a key distinction except that the faculty at most business schools are so thoroughly focused on research that the quality of their teaching often is inconsistent and mediocre—even at some schools that regularly top lists of the best.

That’s largely because most schools hire and promote faculty on the basis of their publication in scholarly journals that are largely unreadable. Teaching tends to be a nice-to-have attribute in a professor, not a must-have requirement. So the system is geared to rewarding the professors who are highly productive in research and just okay in the classroom.

But at Darden, where instruction is based largely on case studies of challenging business issues–teaching is a must-have part of the life of an academic—equally important as research. “Teaching is at the core of the institution,” says Allayannis. “The teaching environment at Darden is exhilarating. It forces you to be the best that you can be because your colleagues are such tremendous teachers. And teaching is very much talked about and discussed.”

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  • Peter Rabover

    Great write up about Yiorgos! He deserves all the praise he gets.

    I am surprised the article failed to mention (or maybe I missed it) his significant presence as the head of Darden Capital Management, an intense process where Yiorgos devotes a significant amount of his time and impacted a tremendous number of students over the years. DCM is a two year process of managing a portion of Darden endowment via five portfolios and 23 student portfolio managers which requires careful student selection and significant Board responsibility. Its a 4.5 credit class and he does an outstanding job with it. Congratulations again on all your honors Yiorgos.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Peter,

    Right you are. I debated bringing that up, but ultimately decided this story was long enough! But it is a very big and important deal.

  • Kendall Jennings

    Great article. Thank you, Mr. Byrne. I’m so glad to see Darden, and our teachers, get the praise they deserve. Being part of this community is one of the greatest honors I have had in my life.

  • srini

    It’s fantastic to read a story like this. I wanted to jump right into my laptop screen and land in Prof. Yiorgos’ class and listen to the discussion about the Wall Street bailouts. What a great story…I hope the students in his class truly appreciate the opportunity that they have.

  • Constantinos Aritzis

    Great article on a subject that often doesn’t get the credit it deserves both from students and MBA programs. It took me back to my Chicago Booth days (back then it was simply GSB) and I remember opting out from a class taught by a Nobel Prize winner because he simply didn’t put enough into teaching. At the same time I had some great transforming teaching experiences that I still remember fondly. Congratulations to Yiorgos and Darden (just wish we had more Allayiannis in Greek Universities).

  • http://www.lifeofjulie.com Julie

    Great article! I fondly remember Yiorgos running around the classroom yelling “more hands! more hands! new hands!”

  • Sloanie

    Someone should profile Zeynep Ton at MIT. She is the best teacher I have ever had at any level. By far. She makes a normally tough topic to teach, operations, seem fascinating and integrates all aspects of business in doing so.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Sloanie,

    No argument from me. We called her out in a feature on the 40 best professors under 40 when she was at Harvard Business School and also profiled her here. I consider Harvard’s decisions to let her go a huge mistake.

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