Newly arrived MBA students are often surprised at the inconsistent quality of teaching at world-class universities. In a typical MBA program, students will collide with some of the most outstanding teachers of their lives, professors whose passion and knowledge can inspire and ignite a love of learning.
And yet, even at the most highly selective business schools, students also will discover teachers who are among the very worst, who wouldn’t deserve a place on a high school faculty. That’s largely because academia places far too much emphasis on scholarly research and little or no weight on the quality of teaching in a classroom.
Only last month, for example, a Wharton MBA student called out what he called the “cartoonishly bad” teaching at the school. Writing anonymously in the business school’s student newspaper, the student lambasted one professor in particular for “reading someone else’s slides aloud” and becoming “visibly annoyed” by questions in class. “Students dropped out in droves, complained to academic advisors, but ultimately bore the brunt of his sloppy syllabus and demotivating indifference.”
‘AT MANY B-SCHOOLS, TEACHING IS CONSIDERED A BURDEN THAT GETS IN THE WAY OF RESEARCH’
Mediocre teaching is not a problem at every business school, and there are a few where substandard teaching is virtually unheard of. One of the most obvious exceptions is the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. At Darden, where case study teaching is the rule, professors take great pride in their classroom performances. It’s not possible to gain promotion or tenure if you are a second-rate teacher. Professors regularly gather for teaching seminars. In recent months, Darden faculty have focused on everything from how to effectively manage student energy in a class and how to get the best out of quiet students.
“The norms around teaching here are just different,” says Michael Lenox, a strategy professor at Darden who is also the school’s chief strategy officer Lenox. “It’s cherished and celebrated. At other schools, you hear professors ask each other, ‘Are you teaching now?’ And if the professor says yes, the reply is often, ‘I’m sorry.’ Teaching is considered a burden that gets in the way of research. It’s a pervasive notion in higher education and it also impacts faculty engagement with students.”
In fact, at Darden, grateful students annually write the equivalent of love letters to the teachers who have had a profound impact on their personal and professional lives. It is a tradition that reinforces an academic culture that treats teaching as a true art. Each year, a committee selects a second-year student for the Frederick S. Morton Leadership Award, which is given at graduation. The awards, established in 1996, honor retired professor Frederick S. Morton, who taught at Darden from 1957 to 1989, and exemplified the school’s tradition of a committed, caring faculty. The awards are presented to an outstanding student in leadership and to the faculty member who has made the most significant contribution to that student’s life.
‘SHE IS ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT TEACHERS’
The student then selects the prof who best fostered his or her leadership ability and explains why. What’s a ‘love letter’ to an inspiring teacher like? Darden students routinely write about the profound impact their professors have had on them as students and future leaders. Imagine an accounting prof getting this accolade from a student as Darden’s Mary Margaret Frank did from Annie Medaglia, who graduated from Darden in 2015 and now works at Bain & Co. as a consultant. “She is one of life’s great teachers – both academically and in the larger life sense of the term,” wrote Medaglia. “Mary Margaret has the ability to teach students to not just consider the facts in front of them, but also challenges them to seek the bigger picture and vision for what their work means for society.”
Or consider this unbridled tribute to Greg Fairchild, who teaches strategic management, entrepreneurship and ethics, from Matthew Priest, a 2014 graduate who is now a senior associate at The Sterling Group. “Greg’s leadership style is built the strength of his relationships with students. His class felt like an intimate, intellectual conversation amongst 65 of your closest friends, not a typical classroom.”
A few of Darden’s professors have actually received the honor more than once. Martin Davidson, a leadership professor at the schoolsince 1998, is one of them. “Martin has taught me to not be apologetic in pursuing change that I think is right,” wrote Angelica Febrillet, who graduated from Darden this year and is now a product marketing manager at Microsoft. “He encouraged me to not be discouraged when I think that things will never change and reminded me that I have a responsibility to myself and others to invest the time and energy needed to push for the changes I want to happen.”
Here’s a sample of some of the best ‘love letters’ to business school professors you will ever read: