What does it take to be an extraordinary teacher? Certainly, a passion for learning and the ablity to communicate that passion to others. In academia, of course, scholarly research is also crucial.
But in the case of Greg Fairchild, who has been teaching at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School for the past 18 years, it’s more than that, much more. A master teacher of Strategic Management, Entrepreneurship, and Ethics who has won multiple awards for his work in the classroom, he also has done something that no other business school professor has done. He has gone behind bars to singlehandedly create a program to help prisoners in Virginia state correction facilities learn business basics.
For his dedication to teaching and scholarship, for creating a highly novel program to help others, for being an inspiring, warm, open and tough teacher throughout an extraordinary career, Fairchild has been named MBA Professor of the Year by Poets&Quants. This is not the first time that the Darden prof has been singled out for being an exceptional teacher. Five years ago, Fairchild landed on our list of the world’s best business school profs.
‘WE’RE ENCOURAGING AND CHALLENGING EACH OTHER TO BE BETTER’
Fairchild exemplifies the teaching ethos at Darden, known as the business school with the world’s best teaching faculty. To him, the job of connecting with students and shaping their life trajectories is as important as his work in class or at his desk. “One of the things about anything an organization sets out to do is intentionality,” says the 52-year-old professor. “So when we think about teaching at this institution, we think about what happens in the classroom. We also think about what happens outside the classroom. And that involves both our interaction that we might have with students, talking in the hallway, working with students on individual research projects. and having students into your home for dinner.
“But it also involves the way we as a faculty actually interact about teaching. I can tell you that in an institution like this one, while faculty might in the hallway be talking about the latest monograph that came out, it’s equally if not more common that they say, ‘So how did the Crocs case go today? And when you did this turn in the case, what did students say?’ We’re encouraging each other, challenging each other, and there’s even just a little bit of competition to be better at that. And so it’s this thought about teaching that is frequently in the discourse and in the things we do to make it happen.”
To Fairchild, teaching is a carefully choreographed exercise, from what and when questions are posed to which students to cold call during a case discussion. At Darden, professors regularly meet to discuss their work with students in a classroom, a rare occurence at other schools. On the afternoon of an interview with Poets&Quants, Fairchild was to meet with four with four of his strategy colleagues who teach in the first-year MBA program. “We will be discussing on Tuesday the cases we will teach next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, nd we’ll be talking about what we’re going to do in each one of those cases, what the key teaching points are, and the places where you could have unique turns. And by the way, one of those cases involves finance and strategy faculty co-teaching the class together. So finance faculty they will be in our teaching meeting. There are going to be ten people in a room together talking about one case that will last one and a half hours long, and we’ll probably all talk about it for at least an hour.”
‘AT DARDEN WE BUILD THE DISCIPLINE OF DISCRETION’
While he tries to cold call students at random, he also considers the work experience each MBA brings into the class. “I spend some time reading the backgrounds of the students and knowing who they are, so that I have a sense of how they might approach a question. I also have some other people in my mind that I know are my second and third calls, and I can bring them in when I feel like they might have a certain insight.”
Those unexpected cold calls, a ritual in every class he teaches, represent crucial preparation for a business life. “At Darden, we build the discipline of discretion: How to explain a decision to a room of people that might not agree with you. You have to act on your feet. Hopefully you want to say something intelligent. You just don’t want air time. And you’re training yourself for a successful life. While that may be troubling, challenging, and even a little fearful in the moment for students, it is the discipline they need to help prepare them for the next stage.”
To successfully teach a case study in a business school, believes Fairchild, requires significant preparation and thought—and a way to connect with students outside the classroom. Even when Fairchild has taught a case many times before, he will spend an hour or so rereading the case before class and going through a teaching plan once again. Fairchild will pay particular attention to what kinds of financial calculations might be necessary to back up a perspective. “I have to know what the right answer is, but I also have to show some detours,” he says. “If a student doesn’t understand one specific calculation, it actually changes the remainder of their work.”
THE OPPOSITE OF ‘ABSORBING THE GOD-GIVEN LECTURE FROM A PROFESSOR’
Having been a student at Darden years ago, Fairchild also knows how stressful it can be to get a cold call requiring an intelligent response in front of classmates. “The case study environment can be intimidating for some, particularly students from cultures whose previous educational experience really was defined by having you sit in a chair, never question, never do anything except absorb the God-given lecture from a professor at the front of the class. Here, you have to be an active participant. You have to bring your experiences to bear in the classroom so that everyone is benefiting from it. So to be able to then break bread with the students around the table in your home is a way to de-stress and make yourself more accessible.”
In Fairchild’s estimation, case study teaching also requires a human touch, one of the reasons he hosts dinners at his home for students in his classes. Fairchild loves to cook, a passion he traces back to his family roots in Oklahoma, and if he hadn’t ended up as a professor, his dream job would have been as the owner and chef of a fusion restaurant. Sometimes, he’ll even have students work as sous chefs to chop up the vegetables and help prep the meal. At the dinner table, Fairchild attempts to get to know students beyond their professional backgrounds. “I try to say to students, ‘Tell me more about who you are. Tell me about your family. Tell me more about why you’re here.’ In that setting where people are sharing and breaking bread, connections are made that are more natural. They’re seeing part of the Darden culture while they’re in my home. By the way, my wife and kids are at those dinners, too. And I have to tell you, what an amazing benefit it has been to my children who’ve met people from around the world at our dinner table.”
The conversations around the family table don’t only go one way. Being invited to eat a home-cooked meal at the Fairchilds is also an invitation into the professor’s own personal journey, from being the son of a U.S. Army Colonel to his decision 19 years ago to have a daughter he and his wife knew would be born with Down syndrome and a major heart defect. This past year brought a personal triumph: Their daughter, Naia, graduated from Charlottesville High School in June, 19 years after an ultrasound and utero test revealed she would have the genetic disorder. In an uncommon and generous gesture, the Fairchilds decided to publicly share their struggle to help others facing similar challenges. So they cooperated with a reporter for The Boston Globe who ultimately turned a series of newspaper articles into a moving book, “Choosing Naia,” that chronicled their doubts, fears and concerns over caring for a child with Down syndrome.
HE COULD HAVE BEEN IN FASHION ALL HIS LIFE
Fairchild is obviously no newcomer to the field, though he is an accidental professor of sorts. What started out as a trip to business school to get ahead in the fashion industry turned into a lifetime of teaching and research for him.
Fresh out of college in 1988 with a degree in communications from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Fairchild’s hard work as an undergraduate paid off when he landed a job at New York’s famed Saks Fifth Avenue. As a manager in the women’s department, his day to day tasks ranged from managing a team of eight to closing the deal on $6,000 couture dresses. When his mentor, a senior VP of Saks, asked him how far he’d hoped to take his career, Fairchild replied that he had his sights set on general manager. So the mentor advised him that, to get on the fast track, his ticket was the MBA degree.
As it turned out, Fairchild’s advisor couldn’t have been more wrong. “Out of 300 students in my MBA class, maybe three of us were from retail.” Likewise, Fairchild says when he completed the degree, there weren’t many retailers breaking their necks to put him on the “fast track.”
Yet there was a silver lining. His time spent pursuing his MBA afforded him some unique opportunities which eventually laid the groundwork for him to become a top business professor. Oddly enough it would come to pass that he would teach at the very school he attended for his own MBA.