It is a lazy Sunday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va. People are out and about under a brilliant sun on a postcard-perfect day.
But inside a second-story conference room on the campus of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, a handful of professors are hard at work. They’re preparing to teach their next marketing classes the following Monday morning.
It’s an intense session. At a blackboard dissecting the specifics of a case study that will form the centerpiece of the next day’s classes is Tom Steenburgh. For many of the school’s newly hired professors–and there are 31 new faculty members at Darden in the past five years–Steenburgh is both a mentor and an inspiration. A master teacher himself, he intimately knows what it really takes to command a classroom filled with 70 discerning MBA students who bring 356 years of collective work experience in the real world to every class.
AT UVA DARDEN, A NEARLY SPIRITUAL DEVOTION TO TEACHING
The four junior professors being counseled by Steenburgh are all superstars in their own right. They include a former corporate executive-turned-professor Kim Whitler, who came to Darden in 2014, and Tami Kim, who joined Darden straight from Harvard Business School in 2017. Also on the team is 38-year-old Luca Cian, who smartly wears slim-fitting Roberto Cavalli suits, speaks in a lively and endearing Italian accent and did both his Ph.D. and post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan, and 35-year-old Lalin Anik, an equally energetic professor originally from Istanbul, Turkey, who earned her Ph.D. from the Harvard Business School. She joined Darden after doing her post-doc work at Duke University. They both came to the school in 2015 and instantly became friends, connected by a nearly spiritual devotion to teaching and to their students.
The two-and-one-half hour session on a Sunday to go over a single case study provides one clue about the school’s whole-hearted devotion to teaching. But it is just one of many interventions that range from late-night rehearsals in empty classrooms to debriefs among faculty after every class. The school’s commitment to put unsurpassed teachers in every class starts with Darden’s recruitment and hiring of new faculty and ends with student evaluations that are taken as seriously as a professor’s academic research.
“Some people find teaching a necessary evil, but not at Darden,” believes Dean Scott Beardsley who interviews every candidate for a faculty position. “If you tell me you don’t like teaching, good luck getting an offer. But if you want a chance to become the best teacher in the world, you have a chance at Darden. The faculty here believe in the power of education and the importance of practice. Research makes you a better teacher, but research is not sufficient.”
STUDENT EVALUATIONS ARE OFF THE CHARTS
It is little wonder why Darden has the best MBA teaching faculty in the world. Most business schools place primacy on academic research, often willing to tolerate mediocre teaching in favor of professors who can churn out articles for the ‘A’ journals of their disciplines. That is a recipe long rejected by Darden which was founded by former Harvard Business School profs in 1955 who brought with them Harvard’s allegiance to the case study approach to learning as well as its embrace of teaching that not merely informed but inspired and motivated students.
Before Ronald Wilcox was offered a faculty post by Darden in 2001, he had to come down to Charlottesville from Carnegie Mellon University where he was working to teach an entire course just for the faculty. They wanted to make sure he was a highly effective teacher before hiring him. Student surveys consistently show that Darden’s reputation for teaching excellence is well deserved. Each year, The Economist surveys thousands of MBA students and graduates and asks them to rank the quality of their faculty. Year in and year out, Darden’s professors smash the competition, consistently outperforming the faculty at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other schools (see chart below). It is also why Darden has dominated first place in offering what students surveyed by The Economist believe is the best MBA educational experience in the world for eight of the last nine years.
Cian and Anik are among two of the relative newbies at Darden who are partly responsible for those highly positive assessments. Dean Beardsley says their student evaluations are “off the charts.” In fact, they are very much on the charts, as close to perfection as humanly possible.
WATCHING A CLASS TAUGHT BY CIAN OR ANIK IS LIKE WITNESSING A HUMAN SPLITTING AN ATOM
What makes them unique? They not only bring deep knowledge and passion for their subjects to a class; they bring their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. To sit in a class with either Anik or Cian is to witness a human splitting an atom. They unleash energy that is unbounded, roaming every corner of the classroom, up and down the steps of the tiered room, back and forth at the front of the massive blackboard. All the while, they are challenging students, drawing out every last perspective on a business case and reinforcing the learnings that come from the discussion.
When they were both looking for their first jobs, they went to the American Marketing Association’s Summer Marketing Educators’ Conference, the primary venue for tenure track placements. Soon-to-graduate PhDs submit their CVs and papers in advance of lining up half-hour interviews with associate deans who recruit faculty. It is something of a debutante ball for marketing academics. The pair found themselves invited to dance with many partners. Cian met with 24 schools at the August conference and got 13 fly-outs to campuses, while Anik met with 30 schools and also ended up with 13 fly-outs.
Their popularly at the event can partly be traced to their non-traditional way of looking at marketing. Both approach the field as behaviorists. Anik’s focus is why consumers make the decisions they do so she can build interventions that correct for underlying bias that leads to those decisions. Cian is largely interested in how the senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste unconsciously affect choices. He also studies how biofeedback techniques, including eye movement tracking, can be used to predict consumer behavior.