Meet the world’s best B-school professors

October 30, 2012, 2:56 PM UTC

University of Michigan’s Dana Muir

(Poets&Quants) — A great teacher, it has been said, is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others.

That’s an apt description for the 50 business school professors chosen by Poets&Quants as the world’s best. Most of these extraordinary teachers, chosen by their schools and their students, are longtime legends in the academic community.

They’ve withstood the tests of time, taught through bear and bull markets, and have consistently imparted life-changing lessons to MBA students year after year; in some cases, decade after decade. And they are not merely great teachers — they are great faculty members, masters in both the classroom and in cutting edge research.

This year’s list includes famous superstar professors, such as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, Wharton’s Jeremy Siegel, and Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, as well as faculty little known outside their schools or fields of study, such as operations maven Michael Trick at Carnegie Mellon or finance expert Dana Muir at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Some 12 of the 50 are women. Nine are Indian, including Dartmouth’s Vijay Govindarajan, the innovation guru at the Tuck School, and NYU’s Aswath Damodaran, the self-effacing master of finance at the Stern School.

MORE: Top 10 B-school professors in the world

They have brought novel approaches to both research and teaching. Peter Ubel, who teaches health care management at Duke University’s Fuqua School, once recruited students to ride up and down in hospital elevators to listen in on conversations. They overheard hospital employees making completely inappropriate remarks, and media all over the world covered the study. Babson College’s Candida Brush is obsessed with golf, and frequently uses the game as a metaphor for teaching business and entrepreneurship. “Things like focus, follow through, and flexibility are all skills that apply to the golf course, the classroom, and the office,” she says.

If they hadn’t become teachers, their alternatives run the gamut. Myles Shaver, a strategy professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School, imagines he might have been the host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Sharon Oster, the former dean of Yale’s School of Management, would ideally be a comedienne. Berkeley’s Atif Mian would trade his expertise in finance to become a molecular biologist. And then, there are a few with a clear sports bent: Peter Morici, an economics professor at the University of Maryland’s Smith School, dreams of being the owner of the New York Giants. NYU’s Aswath Damodaran fancies himself on the New York Yankees’ roster as Derek Jeter’s successor.

These top professors have an intellectual curiosity fueled by considerable passion. To Charles Calomiris at Columbia Business School, the best part of being a business school professor is having “the freedom to think for myself and express those thoughts as I please.” To Sridhar Balasubramanian at North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, being a business academic means, “being paid to think, and to shape minds and lives.”

Nearly all of these profs agree on the worst part of the job: grading. As Ronald Wilcox, who teaches the marketing of financial services at Virginia’s Darden School, puts it, “Grading papers is mindless. Numb. Bored. Self-Flagellation. Get me out of here!”

Breaking out of the Ivory Tower

The top 50 professors exert impressive influence. They hail from the most prestigious business schools worldwide, yet their impact is in no way confined to the proverbial ivory tower. Instead, they’ve advised governments and organizations on nearly every continent on the map, reshaping the way we think about and conduct business.

Take Tom Davenport of Babson College. His research on using consumer data as part of a company’s strategic plan pre-dates Google Analytics and all of the data management buzzwords we’ve adopted. Davenport has written 13 books on business analytics, some of which are the first texts ever written on the subject.

You can also add Harvard’s Michael Porter and London Business School’s Lynda Gratton to the list of game changers. Porter is considered the father of modern strategy. In 2008, he received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce for his contribution to economic development. He has led Harvard’s ambitious initiative on U.S. global competitiveness.

London’s Professor Gratton has been recognized as the business thinker most likely to make a real difference over the next 10 years for her academic work in human resource management. In her latest book, The Shift, Gratton describes five forces that will fundamentally change the way individuals view and engage in work over the next decade: globalization, society, demography, technology, and energy.

Not all of the professors on this list had a meteoric rise from the first day they stood in front of a classroom of MBA students. Consider Pankaj Ghemawat, who now teaches strategy at Spain’s IESE Business School. To say Ghemawat’s teaching career got off to a rocky start would be putting it nicely. At just 23 years old, all but three of his students were older than he was at the time. He was visibly nervous as he gave his first lecture at Harvard. He even reached a point where his vocal chords became paralyzed. “All I could do was point a finger to signal which student would speak next.”

To make matters worse, Ghemawat says, “I was teaching the class [Michael] Porter had launched. So the students weren’t too thrilled when they showed up for class and saw me instead of him.” Eventually, Ghemawat found his stride. He taught at Harvard for 25 years and eventually became the youngest full professor in the school’s history.

These professors collectively have experience in nearly every aspect of business, from helping to heal an ailing economy, to producing basic strategy for the Boston Red Sox (despite their sad performance this past year). But within the four walls of MBA classrooms around the globe, their impact is just as significant as they help groom the next generation of business leaders.

In pursuit of a calling

Says one student as he reflects on longtime Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, “He views the students as his peers and instead of dispelling his wisdom, he gathers our insights and thoughts in order to create new knowledge and dig into deeper truth.” Indeed, almost all of the professors agree that the best part of their job has nothing to do with accolades and status; it’s the opportunity to learn from bright students.

Despite staying true to their first love of teaching, the top 50 professors would be hard-pressed to escape the notoriety generated by their academic prowess. While Vijay Govindarajan, Christine Moorman, and other names on this year’s list may not carry “household” status, they do resonate inside Fortune 500 companies and C-suites. Some of the names on the list, like Chicago Booth’s Austen Goolsbee, echo in the White House; and Raghu Rajan, another Booth professor, is quite familiar to the prime minister of India.

In some cases, it’s their names alone that command attention from business leaders and analysts. In other cases, these teachers have become synonymous with the B-school they’re attached to. Jeremy Siegel has been appropriately nicknamed the “Wizard of Wharton.”

For some, teaching found them rather than the other way around. Darden’s Greg Fairchild and Columbia’s Sheena Iyengar argue that life circumstances simply led them to academia.

Fairchild says that he stumbled upon teaching when he was earning an MBA degree to get to the next level in the fashion industry. Despite being born legally blind, Iyengar says has always loved ideas, communicating with others, and learning from others. In her words, “teaching is all of that.”

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