It’s nighttime in Hanover, New Hampshire. The sky is pitch black. The temperature has plummeted below zero degrees. Most people are huddled indoors. But a lone figure—wearing a cross between running gear and a ninja uniform—pounds the icy pavement outside.
That’s the kind of thing Tuck School of Business Professor Leslie Robinson does. “Everyone in town knows it’s me when they see me running in sub zero at night, because I’m one of the few that does it religiously,” she says.
But Robinson doesn’t just go running on her own. Three times, she’s joined her students in an epic 200-mile relay race. It often takes 25 to 30 hours to complete, so each team rents a big van to sleep in. Students are often surprised by Robinson’s willingness to pile in with them. “They think it’s hilarious that Professor Robinson is like, sleeping on the backseat of the van, but it’s just fun,” she says.
Her attitude toward the race resembles her general approach to being a professor. “I don’t have any pre-defined sort of rules about how I have to interact with the students or how I need to be or act,” she says. “I just sort of do whatever feels right at the time, and I try to have fun with them.”
Doing whatever feels right often means going above and beyond the call of duty. Every time Robinson walks through the business building, she stops and chats with someone new. She has let a student who couldn’t find housing live in her garage apartment. Pete Gauthier, a former student, remembers the way she broke the ice on the first day of class. Unbeknownst to the students, she’d already read through everyone’s resumes; one student, Christina, happened to have storied military experience. Robinson asked the class, “Where’s Christina?” When the student made herself known, Robinson joked, “I’m terrified of you.”
It’s hard to say whether her openness is a result of nature or nurture. Though Robinson grew up right outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, her family started moving around when she was 12 years old. “Some parents are terrified to take their kid out of high school and move,” she says. “Well, my parents did it four times.” Now that she’s a professor, facing a room full of new students every single year is no problem. “It’s like, you have to start over so many times that you almost just become completely numb to the fear, and you don’t even feel it anymore,” she says. In fact, she’s come to enjoy the process. “I think moving around made me really just like meeting new people,” she explains. “It almost made me need it. I constantly have to be meeting new people in my life.”
Robinson uses her gifts to get students engaged in a subject with a reputation for being staler than year-old Saltines: accounting. “When you get into a class where you feel like you just want to get through it, your first instinct is to talk as little as possible, because it’s easier to get through something when you’re not being held accountable for anything you say or do,” she observes. So, she does everything in her power to make students want to participate—and it works. “In a class size of 70 people, it’s pretty unique for someone to feel comfortable just blurting out something without raising their hand, but that’s sort of how we operate in there,” she says.
Since Robinson is willing to invest so much in her students, they try to do the same for her, particularly during the last day of class. One year, each student in a 70-person section brought her a cup of coffee and placed it on the front table. Another year, one of her sections serenaded her. “In earlier days, people used to call me Mrs. Robinson because of the movie,” she explains. “On the last day of class one year, somebody wore a tuxedo to class and sat right in the front in the middle, and I knew something was up. They reenacted a little part from the movie at the end of class, and then sung the Simon & Garfunkel song to me—the entire class.” Robinson was touched. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she says. “I actually cried. It was a good one.”
Between the races and the hijinks, Robinson, who studies international accounting and taxation, has still managed to make a name for herself as a scholar. “It’s sort of like, when people think about the topic I study for my research, they think about me,” she says. “To an academic, that’s your life’s goal, to have people think of you when they want to know about something, to think of you as the person that they can get the answer from. I think I’m well on my way to that, and that feels good.”
Still, Robinson doesn’t want anyone to get the idea that she’s accomplished all this stuff as a lone wolf; her husband is her true partner. “He’s just a really solid, supportive very, very fun person in my life, and everything that I’ve done, we’ve done together,” she says. (Incidentally, he’s a website programmer and stay-at-home dad, and his biggest clients are Playtex and Wonderbra. “He knows more about bras than I do,” Robinson says. “Even people at work know this story. They always ask him, ‘How’s the bra website going, Paul?’”)
Old, cantankerous academics have plenty of eccentric charm—but there’s something to be said for a professor who isn’t too far from your age. “I actually think it’s really important for business schools to have young faculty because you’re in a different place,” Robinson says. “In 10 or 15 years, I’m going to be in a different place, and I probably won’t sleep on the backseat of the van. I’ll be doing something else, but I think it’s nice to be able to interact with them like this right now in my life.”
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