Mr. Tough Guy

Frank Wright is an RPI professor and onetime college dropout who earns his students' respect by pushing them hardand learning all their names

BusinessWeek asked business undergraduates to tell us about their favorite professors. Here's another installment in the series.

On the first day of orientation at the School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Frank Wright will tell his audience of undergraduate students: "I admire your courage."

Later, as the same rapt audience of students sits in front of him on the first day of Introduction to Management, Wright springs it on them: "I screwed you," he tells them as they leaf through the eight-page syllabus that looks more like a government contract. But he won't tell them how—that, he says, is part of the learning process.

They'll have to figure out for themselves that multiple projects are due simultaneously, and schedule conflicts abound. He lets them know the word "hope" (which "has no place in management talk") is forbidden in class, that a PowerPoint typo earns an automatic F, that they should address one another formally using last names, that for every one thing he teaches them, they must learn three more. What’s more, they should be in class at 8 a.m. sharp.

Students responding to BusinessWeek's 2007 undergraduate survey said it's by far their hardest class in college. Still, they said, Wright is their favorite RPI prof. How so?

The Magic Key

The 58-year-old former Raytheon (RTN) executive and Navy officer remembers an astonishing number of the 1,753 students' faces (2,243 if you're counting graduate students) who have passed through his Introduction to Management course over the past decade. With an average of 23 academic majors filling his lecture room each semester (figures he keeps track of over the years), he makes sure to get the attention of each student—using four of six different teaching methods every class session to accommodate what he describes as four distinct learning styles.

More important, he draws from his military days to gain their respect. "When you are on a ship at sea and you're carrying all sorts of weapons and ammunition, you have to trust everyone together," says Wright. "That trust comes from respect. And therein lies the magic key."

He memorizes the names and faces of his new students off a photo roster before the first day of class. Leah Carboni, who graduated from Lally in the spring, says Wright's unequivocal respect for students—he always referred to her as Ms. Carboni—was contagious in the classroom. "It almost left all of the other college stuff at the door," she says. Stepping into the classroom each morning, she would think: "I'm not Leah anymore; I'm Ms. Carboni."

While he's got their attention, he will douse them with stories. "I guess it's because I kissed the Blarney Stone," Wright jokes of the day years ago when he leaned over a parapet in Blarney Castle in Ireland (one of 54 countries he's visited) and placed his lips on the rock known for anointing with storytelling prowess those who kiss it. He will sprinkle conversations with examples from every walk of life. In five minutes' time, he will quote Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black, draw a lesson from Confucius, compare himself to NBA coach Pat Riley, and cite the influence of thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Darwin.

Earning the Grade

It is hard to imagine that this former military officer who rises at 3 a.m. seven days a week quit college the first time around because schoolwork took a back seat to basketball. He later earned his undergraduate and master's degrees while in the Navy.

Still, his path to academia was unconventional. "I’m a dropout," he admits, referring not to his college years but to the choice to quit four years into a PhD program at the very management school where today he teaches and is head of the undergraduate business program. But this time, says Wright, the unfinished degree was because he was "lured into teaching."

Daily this fall, he will remind his management students—as he has for the past decade—of his mantra: "Prior preparation prevents poor presentation." Before class presentations, he tells students the projector they were counting on suddenly broke, confiscates handouts to see how they lead a discussion without notes, and makes last-minute location changes to throw them off. "You knew you were earning your grade," says Carboni. And "he knew he was a great professor because kids would rave about him."

Wright won’t dispute that: "I chalk the chalk, if you will."

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