MBA Deans Share The Hardest Classes They Ever Took

Bad teachers are great preparation for the work world. Some will devise arbitrary rules and apply them inconsistently. Others will disparage and dismiss —rationalizing their cruelty as “teachable moments” designed to “toughen up” their pupils. Of course, there are the burnouts who drone on from last decade’s lecture, blissfully unaware that anyone else is in the room.

Soon enough, these students will become graduates. They will face draining workloads, nitpicky clients, and hard-bitten managers. They will be tossed into the deep end and expected to swim. When that happens, they will take a page from the MBA handbook…and band together with their peers.

Dean Tiff Macklem

That was a lesson taken away by Tiff Macklem, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, when he was earning his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Western Ontario. Here, he encountered the toughest class he ever took: Money and Finance. On the surface, it was a dream come true: a course taught by, in Macklem’s words, a senior faculty member and recognized thought leader. Just one problem: “It was so hard because the professor was very hard to follow. I left every class lost.”

Macklem wasn’t alone, however. His classmates were equally lost. Sometimes, they would gather to gripe, but came to an epiphany soon enough. “Nobody cared,” Macklem asserts. “It was up to us to learn the material. So we formed a study group, divided up the papers, worked through them and taught each other.” In the end, Macklem admits, he learned more in that class than any other — despite the extra work. More than that, he came away with a priceless lesson that resonates with him even today.  “Appreciate great teachers, inspired bosses and great colleagues, but when you get a bad one, you still need to get the job done. Figure it out. Blaming others is not a strategy.”

Like most, you probably picture a business school dean as confident and capable. When they were students, they probably sailed to the top of their classes, right? They were the ones who were doling out help, not asking for it. You can’t imagine them ever being intimidated by classmates or finding themselves hopelessly confused. There’s no way they would ever fail a class, let alone drop out of a class.

Don’t tell that to Scott DeRue, Dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Management.  Today, he teaches Organizational Behavior. As an undergrad, he barely cracked 50% on his first test in his signature subject. Think that’s rough? Try being Kellogg’s Sally Blount. After giving birth to her second child, she failed her preliminary exam to get into Kellogg’s Ph.D. program. How about Wharton’s Geoffrey Garrett? He once threw in the towel on a political economy sequence — but not without a long fight… and gaining some wisdom in the process. “The foundational principles I learned in that course have informed my thinking ever since,” he says.

Some deans, however, discovered an identity or path during their most demanding courses. As an undergrad at Trinity University, the University of Texas’ Jay Hartzell was baffled by the case method and terrified by cold calls. In response, he turned into academia’s version of ‘Scared Straight,’ applying himself like never before, eventually becoming a case-driven teacher himself. Hartzell wasn’t the only A-list dean confounded by cases. As an MBA, the University of Minnesota’s Sri Zaheer even summoned the guts to ask her teacher, a Harvard case adherent, to bring more structure into the classroom. At that moment, she discovered the true nature of teaching and learning. “No, I want you to come up with the structure – you need to identify the problem, and you need to figure out an approach to the solution,” her teacher told her.

Dean Erika James

“That was a revelation,” she adds.

For others, the hardest classes were a reminder that students sometimes needed to “eat the broccoli” in the words of Rice University’s Peter Rodriguez. For him, that meant trusting the process and not trying to do everything his way. In contrast, Rich Lyons, the outgoing dean of the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, is thankful that he was required to take a course on how the social and political landscape impacts business. “What I learned is that the class you would often first select out of in school is the stuff you probably most need (whether you know it or not).” That said, Emory University’s Erika James ate her broccoli —in Advanced Statistics —and earned an A too. However, her biggest gain from this class wasn’t the nuggets of wisdom, but the habits and confidence it instilled. “Sometimes it’s about hard work and perseverance… and taking advantage of the professor’s office hours,” she quips.

This spring, Poets&Quants asked the deans at top business schools to share the toughest course they ever took. From Organizational Behavior — seemingly the most popular choice —to Calculus, here are the courses that sometimes left the best minds in business daffy and dispirited.


Dean William Boulding


“I once took a class from an extremely brilliant and much-honored professor (whom I will not name). He thought eating was a waste of productive time, so would teach while eating his lunch. He would share morsels of both wisdom and food as he spit out his lectures. I learned to sit in the back row for this particular course, so I wouldn’t be distracted or in the line of fire!”

– William Boulding, Duke University (Fuqua)



Dean Roger Huang

“I am a finance and econ guy at heart. Those things make sense to me. But during my freshman year at Purdue University, I was required to take communications, which involved not just speaking up, but speaking up before all of my classmates.

I grew up in Hong Kong, which was a society that discouraged people from speaking up. As students, we were taught to write down whatever the instructor wrote on the board, and then learn it on our own. We didn’t challenge or even ask the teacher anything.

So here I am in this class that is all about public speaking, which seemed like a big hump in my academic career road. At the same time, I realized it was a hump that I needed to get over, because I wanted to be a professor. Here’s what I did: I memorized. I memorized my entire first speech and delivered it without looking at any cue cards. At the end, my professor said, “Roger, you just stood there and talked without looking at any notes!” For better or worse, that became my signature style. Even when I became a professor and started giving seminars that could last an hour-and-a-half, I memorized my entire lecture and delivered it without any notes or using slides.”

– Roger Huang, Notre Dame University (Mendoza)


Dean Scott Beardsley

“The toughest course I took at MIT Sloan School of Management was Accounting with Professor Patricia O’Brien.  I had studied electrical engineering at Tufts University and eventually found it to be too narrow. After a couple of years working in technology, I decided to go to business school to learn the basics of business. I had never taken Accounting, and it was an entirely new language for me. There were professional accountants in the class. To push through it, I studied hard and worked through accounting problem sets over and over until I understood the language enough. With hindsight, accounting is probably one of the most useful courses anyone can take to understand the basics of business.”

– Scott Beardsley, University of Virginia (Darden)


Go to the next page for the toughest courses endured by the deans at Stanford, Kellogg, Texas, Minnesota, California-Berkeley, and North Carolina.

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