Teaching

What makes a master B-school professor?

February 28, 2012: 11:42 AM ET

Yiorgos Allayannis is one of many superstar teachers at UVA-Darden, and his evolution shows how the school has made teaching an integral part of its culture.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

Yiorgos Allayannis

UVA-Darden finance professor Yiorgos Allayannis

(Poets&Quants) -- The day's assigned case, "The Weekend That Changed Wall Street," is meant to provoke a thoughtful discussion. It is a deep dive into the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, an event that shocked the financial world and helped trigger a severe global recession.

So the first question that finance professor Yiorgos Allayannis scribbles on the blackboard in classroom 190 at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business evokes Shakespeare: "To bail out or not to bail out."

It certainly won't be the only question asked on this Monday morning in late February, but it is the first one that MBA students in this highly popular elective course on financial institutions and markets must consider. Most of the students who raise their hands favor the government's decision to let the investment banking firm go bust. Only eight students believe it was a mistake.

Cold calling one MBA after another, Allayannis draws out the arguments for and against a bail out of Lehman before delving into the intricacies of the commercial paper market and credit default swaps, which are central to the case. When he asks a student why the commercial paper market exists, Allayannis is given a fairly crisp definition: these are short-term loans used to cover inventory expenses, accounts receivables, and the working capital needs of investment-grade companies.

"That's accounting language I don't understand," he shouts back. "I want feelings and emotions, poetry. If the market dries up, it will affect the GEs and the Intels of the world. There will be no salaries, no jobs, no company. Where is this stopping? In a park downtown," Allayannis says dramatically.

A teacher's teacher at a teacher's business school

The 46-year-old, Greek-born professor looks a little like a young Clint Eastwood. He's trim and tall, just over six feet, with a friendly, angular face and light blue eyes. In the classroom, he moves around like a human tornado, whirling this way and that, up and down the tiered steps in the center of the class, waving his arms in the air. At times, he is nearly breathless and perspiring.

"He starts by drawing you to the edge of your seat with a remarkably passionate and engaging teaching style, and then he keeps you there by driving you to make and defend specific, time-critical decisions rather than accepting easy generalizations," says Nathan DeLuke, who graduated from Darden last year.

There is no doubt that he is a master teacher who can make finance -- not the easiest of business school subjects -- compelling and entertaining. Great teachers are common in many business school classrooms from Harvard to Northwestern. But they are especially common at the Darden School, the only B-school in the U.S. to score in the top 20th percentile of BusinessWeek's student satisfaction surveys over 24 years for exceptional teaching.

Allayannis is one of many superstar teachers at Darden, and his evolution here shows how this school has made teaching an integral and defining part of its culture. That wouldn't be such a key distinction except that the faculty at most business schools are so thoroughly focused on research that the quality of their teaching often is inconsistent and altogether mediocre, even at schools that regularly top rankings.

That's largely because most schools hire and promote faculty on the basis of their publication in scholarly journals that are largely unreadable. Teaching skill tends to be a nice-to-have attribute in a professor.

But at Darden, where instruction is based largely on case studies of challenging business issues, teaching is a must-have part of the life of an academic -- equally important as research. "Teaching is at the core of the institution," says Allayannis. "It forces you to be the best that you can be because your colleagues are such tremendous teachers." More

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