MBA Deans Share The Hardest Classes They Ever Took

Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

“It wasn’t a single course, but the toughest time I had in graduate school was taking my preliminary exams for my Ph.D.  Back then no one was having babies while getting a Ph.D., and if you did, you still had to meet all expected performance targets. There was no maternity leave policy for graduate students, so the fact that I had a six-week old baby and a two-year old was seen as immaterial when it came to taking my examination.  The test was a single question, and I had 24 hours to submit my answer.  Between sleep deprivation, breast feeding and two babies who needed attention from their mom, my submission was hardly stellar, and I failed.  It was awful. Everyone in my department at Kellogg felt badly because they knew that requiring me to take the test at that moment wasn’t the right thing to do.  But it was policy.

Fortunately, the faculty in the department all agreed that it was not a fair test and voted to give me a “make-up” exam six months later, which I passed. I was so grateful for that show of support. That experience is one of the reasons why I’m such a staunch advocate for creating pathways that allow people of any gender, race or other background to feel heard and allowed to demonstrate their best capabilities at work.”

– Sally Blount, Northwestern University (Kellogg)


Dean Jonathan Levin (Photo Courtesy of L.A. Cicero)

“The toughest course I remember was not a business course; it was a freshman honors calculus class. The professor was a brilliant and respected mathematician, Peter Sarnak. He walked in the first day and without taking off his jacket began writing on the blackboard. I wasn’t following at all, so I just copied everything line-by-line. By the third class, we had gone from 90 students to about 35. Professor Sarnak walked in, looked around, and said, “Ok, this is more the right size. Let’s get started.” I don’t know that I ever worked harder in a class, and I learned how rewarding it can be to work hard and understand things that at first seem impenetrable.”

– Jonathan Levin, Stanford GSB


Dean Jay Hartzell

“Some courses in my Ph.D. program come to mind – especially a very technical and theoretical course in asset pricing. And, my lowest grade since junior high was in Introduction to Tax – but, I blame an 8:30 a.m. start time and my lack of effort for that one.

So, the toughest course was probably “Business Policy,” the capstone class at my undergraduate alma mater (Trinity University). This was a case-based class that integrated a wide variety of disciplines and ideas, taught via the Socratic method by a feared, intimidating professor. I wasn’t used to “cold calling” or the incomplete information and lack of structure that cases provide relative to standard textbooks.

Ultimately, the class went well because I was so scared that I truly applied myself for one of the first times. I started to see the application of theory to practice, and how decisions must be made with incomplete information. This course changed my point of view. I now love teaching cases and, as dean, I am always looking for ways for us to bring theory to practice. In fact, I signed myself up to teach the equivalent class at UT next spring. As another example, in many ways, our new student-managed real estate investment fund is the product of such experiences. The fund is like a business-school case on steroids, where students must make assumptions, have a point of view and defend it, communicate clearly and persuasively – all in an environment where real money is at stake, but failure doesn’t jeopardize one’s career.

– Jay Hartzell, University of Texas (McCombs)


Dean Sri Zaheer

“Probably the toughest course I ever took was actually my first case course in business school. This was at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, right after finishing undergrad, with no work experience. I was thrust into a case class where we were discussing Unilever’s Indian subsidiary and the role it played in promoting family planning in India.

It was like we were just thrown into the deep end. This was the first time I had been in a class where there was absolutely no structure. It was a completely Harvard style case study, where we were not given any guidance on what we were expected to do, how we were expected to approach preparing for it, and the professor made it a point to cold call as well.

I remember challenging the professor and saying, could you give us some more structure, some hints on where to go?  He said, “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.” That was a revelation!   But the rigor it imposed in requiring us to think through a messy problem, make judgment calls, weigh the consequences and figure out how you might implement a solution, through forging alliances and through persuasion, is something that has continued to help me, even in managing a business school in a complex university setting.”

– Sri Zaheer, University of Minnesota (Carlson)


Dean Richard Lyons of UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business is preparing to leave his position. Learn more about Richard Lyons Berkeley

Dean Richard Lyons of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

“Looking back, I’d have to say it was the course I took as an undergrad business major at Berkeley called The Social and Political Environment of Business. I tended to be strong quantitatively, so finance, accounting, applied statistics and the like were not as challenging. But ask me to think about the wider context within which business operates? Too messy, not immediately relevant, and definitely not easy for me.

When I look back, though, I am so glad that I was introduced to “business in society” issues. I would not have taken that course if it wasn’t required. But 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). And now, as a dean, I realize that this part of how we shape people is an essential part of shaping the right people for the world.”

– Rich Lyons, University of California-Berkeley (Haas)


Dean Doug Shackelford

“The course I struggled most with was Organizational Behavior. I had trouble seeing why that “people stuff” mattered. Only when I was older did I realize what it was all about – and how critically important it is. If I’d known then what I do now, I would have taken fewer “hard skill” courses and more “soft skill” classes.

Before you’re in a position of leadership, it’s very hard to understand and appreciate human dynamics and the role that they play in decision making in any organization. In calculus, there’s one right answer. In leading an organization, emotions play a bigger role than cold analysis. You might think that leading faculty, for instance, would be easy – that they are guided solely by rational, economic decisions. But they’re people just like everyone else, with egos, different motivations and the desire to be part of something bigger than they are. Understanding what motivates people is essential.”

– Doug Shackelford, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)


Go to the next page for the toughest courses endured by the deans at Wharton, Michigan, Dartmouth College, Washington University, Rice University, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and the University of Washington.

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