A Stand-Up Guy

Gilbert Harrell's use of dialogue and real-world examples in his marketing classes keep students coming back for more

BusinessWeek asked business undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here is another installment in the series.

Matthew Dyer took Marketing Management at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University more than a decade ago. But he still remembers his first day of class with Professor Gilbert Harrell, whose first words were: "If you want to be a millionaire, please stand up."

Everyone in the lecture hall—a fresh crop of eager business majors—rose. With the class still standing, Harrell explained the details of bankruptcy, and then asked, "If you'd be willing to go bankrupt once in order to have a chance to be a millionaire, remain standing." About a quarter of the class sat down. By the time he got to "Bankrupt 10 times?" only about seven students—Dyer included—were still standing.

"Look around," Harrell said. "These are the people who are driven enough, crazy enough, and perhaps lucky enough to be millionaires. I would stick close to them, because that's what it takes." It was an inspiring lesson for Dyer about entrepreneurial spirit. And although he's not a millionaire yet, with only one failed business venture behind him, he certainly hasn't given up.


Harrell has taught more than 30,000 students like Dyer in his 30-plus years at Michigan State, countless numbers of whom continue to sing his praises. Bob Duncan, dean of the Broad College of Business, puts it succinctly: "He's a legend."

Harrell has received numerous awards for his teaching, including the John D. and Dortha J. Withrow Award, as the top teacher/scholar in the Broad School; the Phi Chi Theta Professor of the Year Award; and the Golden Key National Honor Society Teaching Excellence Award, as the top teacher at Michigan State—accolades especially impressive considering that Harrell's Marketing Management course is one of the school's largest.

To ensure that each of the students in his 600-seat lecture hall remains engaged, Harrell uses an active teaching style more akin to dialogue than a standard lecture. He also sets the bar high, requiring students to come well-prepared. With the help of his teaching assistants, he even takes attendance at every class.

Students praise Harrell's use of real-world examples, many of them gleaned from work done for his consultancy, Harrell &Associates. And while Harrell says he doesn't just "tell stories"—they're always in service of a larger concept—recounting humorous anecdotes is another tool he uses to hold students' interest. "These can be serious subjects, but you don't want to be so serious about them that people aren't having a good time. Students should look forward to coming to class."


His students say it's a strategy that works: "It was a huge class, but he made it feel much more intimate," says Joe Mescher, a 2004 marketing grad. "He made you not want to skip class, because you didn't want to miss anything."

And while Harrell has more than a few tricks up his sleeve to get students to pay attention, he also knows how to make his lessons stick. He does that by making the extra effort to relate concepts to the lives of undergrads—who typically have little experience in the business world—before expanding on them.

Harrell begins a lesson on vision, for example, by asking students to create a vision for their own life by describing their personal values, mission, strategic direction, and core competencies, before moving on to apply those same ideas to a company.

Duncan says what makes Harrell "truly remarkable" is his ability to bring relevance to even the most abstract ideas. "He's an expert in his field, but he knows how to translate that as well," he says. "He's able to demonstrate to students why the material is so important and then give them the toolkit to apply it." And apply it they do.


Jeff Miller graduated in 2000 with a degree in electrical engineering. He only took one marketing class—Harrell's—but was able to use what he learned there to wow interviewers enough to land a job as a marketing manager.

Mike Frey changed his major to marketing after taking Harrell's class in 2000; he's now in charge of sales and marketing for an IT consulting firm, where Frey says he uses concepts Harrell taught him every day. "I still have all my notes from class," he says. "Every once in a while I'll go down in the basement and dig them up."

Harrell says nothing pleases him more than hearing from former students who say they've been able to put the things they learned from him into practice. And so far, his students have been making him very happy indeed.

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