2016 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Jongwoon (Willie) Choi, Katz Graduate School of Business

Willie Choi Pittsburgh

Jongwoon (Willie) Choi

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

University of Pittsburgh, Katz Graduate School of Business

Think accounting is dreary and accounting teachers are dry and detached? Well, you’ve never met the University of Pittsburgh’s Willie Choi. The winner of four consecutive “Excellence in Teaching Awards” at Katz, Choi has managed to pull off a truly amazing feat. He has turned accounting into something real and rousing. Forget debits and credits. In Choi’s class, accounting is an expression of human psychology and how it impacts decisions. Beyond making accounting relevant with examples and entertaining students with his trademark wit, Choi is known as a teacher who truly cares. He makes time to ease their struggles and takes joy in their successes. Beyond being a stellar teacher, Choi is a renowned researcher, earning the coveted 2015 Best Early Career Researcher Award in 2015. In his spare time, Choi is an avid Green Bay Packers fan who lists Indiana Jones as one of his role models.

Age: 32

At current institution since: 2011

Education:

BSBA, accounting and political science, Washington University in St. Louis, 2005

MAcc, Ohio State University, 2006

PhD, Accounting, Emory University, 2011

Courses you currently teach: Strategic Cost Management

Professor you most admire: The professor I most admire is my PhD advisor, Kristy Towry. Perhaps the best lesson I learned from her is to take my work seriously, but to not take myself seriously. I also admire Indiana Jones (people forget he’s a professor). He’s brilliant, passionate about his “research,” and can pull off a fedora better than I ever could. Plus, he’s married to Karen Allen, and Sean Connery is his father. Could life be any better than that?

“I knew I wanted to be a b-school professor when…one of my undergraduate accounting professors (Bill Rankin) showed me some of his research, after I asked about what he did when he wasn’t teaching.”

“If I weren’t a b-school professor…I would be doing odd jobs to scrap together enough money to follow Phish on tour, much to the chagrin of my wife.”

Most memorable moment in the classroom or in general as a professor: In my very first section on my very first day of teaching at Pitt (Fall 2011), I mentioned to my students that I’m a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan, and I got booed. It totally threw me off for the rest of the day—seriously, who gets booed on the first day?  I later remembered that the Packers had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV about seven months earlier. As an avid sports fan, that moment convinced me Pittsburgh was exactly the kind of passionate sports city I wanted to live in. But, as an avid Packers fan, I felt compelled to respond, and so every exam that semester included a question involving that Packers’ Super Bowl victory. I’ve kept it up ever since.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Receiving the 2015 Best Early Career Researcher Award given jointly by the AICPA and CIMA. While I greatly appreciate the acknowledgement of my research, what makes it particularly special to me is I share the distinction with my advisor Kristy Towry (who won in 2008) and with fellow Emory PhD alum and co-author Ivo Tafkov (who won in 2014).

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? Showing people through research and teaching that accounting is not simply about rules and debits and credits. It’s fundamentally about human behavior, about how we decide what to measure, how to measure it, and how we use that information to make decisions.

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? Grading. Only the truly evil among us enjoy it.

Fun fact about yourself:  I’ve become obsessed with learning the banjo, but it’s for the nerdiest reason possible. I recently saw Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary which follows banjo player Béla Fleck as he travels to Africa to explore the historical origins of the banjo. The film traces the banjo back to an instrument called the akonting, which sounds exactly how you think it would (“accounting”). See, I told you.

Favorite book: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott.

Favorite movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back.

Favorite type of music: Jam bands like Phish the Grateful Dead are close to my heart. But, I also listen to a lot of Motown music, especially Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Favorite television show: Seinfeld, The West Wing, Good Eats

Favorite vacation spot: Hawaii

What are your hobbies? Spending time with my family, playing and watching sports, listening to and playing music, skee-ball, and developing my whiskey palate.

Twitter handle: I don’t do Twitter.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…less free food. I have no self-control, so I never say no to free food, and I’m becoming more pear-shaped by the day. Save me from myself.”

Students say…

“When I signed up for Strategic Cost Management, I expected to be stuck in just another management accounting class of which I more than likely would not be a fan. Little did I know, I would have the honor of meeting and working with one of the greatest professors I have ever encountered. But Willie is more than just a professor to me. Beyond simply being an all-around great guy and wonderful teacher who treats all of his students with the utmost respect, he was the first professor to get me truly excited about accounting. His teaching methods do more than touch on real-world examples—they create our own real-world examples. Before I knew it, I was using the knowledge I derived from class in my day-to-day life. As if this isn’t enough, Willie is my first and only professor who seemed to care so much about his students and their understanding of the material that he would do whatever it took to make sure they understood and did well. I specifically remember emailing him one Saturday asking for help with an assignment due on Monday, saying I would work around his schedule that Monday if it was possible. Within an hour, he had plans to be in his office on Sunday and for me to stop in. And that is just what Willie did for his students, all the time. The things he taught me go beyond the classroom, and I sincerely hope that my future is filled with people like Willie Choi.”
Emily Perdue
Accounting Major, University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration (Pitt Business), Bachelor of Business Administration Candidate, Class of 2017

“Professor Willie Choi possesses the rare ability to engage a classroom of business undergraduates without hanging “participation points” over their heads. While he implements a variety of hands-on exercises to make the classroom engaging, it is more so his outgoing and encouraging personality that resonates with his students. I have had the pleasure of working with Professor Choi closely during numerous “Internship for Credit” experiences. In our interactions outside the classroom, I have discovered that, despite his many successes, Professor Choi is exceptionally humble. Such modesty leads him to be an incredible mentor and a well-regarded professor. It is apparent he is equally in awe of his student’s successes as he is his own, and he recognizes fully the time and dedication required to achieve such accomplishments. I highly recommend taking one of Professor Choi’s classes should you have the opportunity to do so.”
Nicole Clark
Master of Science in Accounting Student, University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, Degree Candidate for Class of 2016

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