Don’t ask Bill Nichols how retirement is going. After nearly 40 years at Notre Dame, the longtime accountancy professor and former associate dean officially began his emeritus status at the end of December 2016. But he hasn’t really made much headway commencing a life of (at least some) leisure. Instead, at the time of this interview, he had been attending the ND MBA course Business on the Frontlines as a faculty adviser in preparation for the spring trip to Bolivia.
This is the fourth time Nichols has been hands-on with Business on the Frontlines, an immersive experience that utilizes business as a force for good in countries torn apart by war or violent conflict. The course first plunges students into the big questions of poverty and humanity before they go on to study a challenging issue in a particular developing country.
Although he was just a tad apprehensive about adapting to the high altitude — Cochabamba, the city they were to fly into, lies at 8,400 feet — Nichols was ready to sink his teeth into business-to-people issues. He looked forward to getting to know both the country and culture of Bolivia, and, maybe most of all, meeting local citizens.
With kind eyes and long dimples that telegraph his warmth, Nichols possesses a down-to-earth nature that isn’t always found in leaders who have earned the level of distinction and respect that he has, both as a professor and administrator. In fact, former Mendoza dean Carolyn Woo attributes Nichols’ success to his warmth. “Bill has an authentic sense of the other, making sure that they thrive,” she says, “He sees that their needs are addressed, and that the people who count on him get his very best.”
On a recent unseasonably warm day, Nichols showed a few visitors around his 24-acre property in Niles, Michigan. Wooded and Walden-like, it sits beside the St. Joseph River and teems with wildlife. A tree has fallen over the path, a future task for Nichols to tackle. As the group makes its way down from the house to the dock — either via the 113-step stairway or through a long, lovely ravine — it’s apparent how deeply this man of numbers loves his family and this place, and his tenure as a professor at Notre Dame.
Nichols himself came from humble circumstances. Born in Battle Creek, Michigan (which, faithful to his hometown, he pronounces “Battle Crick”), he lost his mother at an early age. He and his younger brother were raised by his father, Don, who worked in an auto body shop. “He was my hero,” says Nichols. At his high school, only about half of the student body continued on to college. “I don’t care what you do,” his father told Nichols when he was old enough. “But you go to college. Period.”
Nichols earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting at Western Michigan University in nearby Kalamazoo, went to work in public accounting for Price Waterhouse back in Battle Creek, then eventually returned to Western Michigan for his MBA.
One day, he walked into his department chair’s office and said he’d like to teach a class. He’d even do it for free, he added. But happily — since he was now married and he and his wife, Diane, had just had a son, Ben — he was also offered remuneration. Nichols was a natural in the classroom. “I was thinking this was the best of all worlds,” he remembers. “I figured I’d want to do this the rest of my life.” He completed a doctoral degree at Florida State, had a second child, daughter Lisa, and in 1977, was offered a faculty position at Notre Dame.
He laughs about his teaching load at the outset — four courses each semester, multiple preparations, five days a week. “My first year, I taught four different courses — Principles of Accounting and Intermediate Accounting in the fall; Principles II and Intermediate II in the second semester,” he remembers. “There are actually people who had me for all four classes.”
They could have had it worse. “Bill’s first love is teaching and at that he excels,” says Woo, “To him, there are no strong or weak students. Just those who get it and those for whom he needs to try harder to make the points clear. He is indescribably excited about accounting and breathes life into it.” In the earlier days, she mentions, he was even known to jump on a table when he was explaining the significance of certain accounting regulations.
But no matter how much he felt pulled toward the classroom, when duty called, he stepped up. At Mendoza, that took the form of service as an administrator. He’s served as associate dean for graduate programs, for faculty and budget, and for faculty and research. He also volunteered for a few assignments of the twist-my-arm variety — resident director of the Notre Dame Australia program in 2009 and resident director of the Notre Dame London MBA program in 2000. Nichols was part of the leadership team at Mendoza when the undergraduate program was ranked No. 1 five years in a row from 2010 to 2014.
No matter what role he took on during his career, he brought this great insight: “I’m an accountant. I work with numbers. But every time I feel great joy or distress, it is all because of people. Every person has a story. With students or faculty or staff, you have to remember to try to figure out who they are and appreciate and respect their views,” he says.
Nichols may be transitioning into retirement, as he says, “with an open mind and little planning.” He can see himself taking walks in the woods, spending more time with Diane, visiting their two children and four grandkids in Nashville and Cleveland, playing with the dog, and even learning to sit still and read on the beach at Lake Michigan.
But when he returns from the heights of Bolivia to the 800-feet-or-so elevation of his corner of the Midwest, he’ll carry even more compelling stories, more insistent images that may make it hard to sit back.
“You can learn from everybody,” he says. “You have to shut up and listen to people. Because at the end of the day, I don’t know where the hell this world is going, but we’ve got to learn to live together a little better than we’re doing now.”