Meet Carl Ackermann

By John Monczunski | Fall 2012

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So a gorilla walks into a room where 500 students are taking their first exam in an introductory finance course. A few minutes later, a gigantic banana saunters in.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! What is this? Some kind of a joke?

Precisely. But despite what happens next, there’s more than monkey business going on.

When the gorilla notices his favorite fruit, he “goes ape,” naturally, and, to peals of laughter, chases the interloping yellow fruit around the room and out the door.

Here’s the wackiest thing of all: This cartoon scene, or a variation, happens every spring in FIN 20150, Carl Ackermann’s Corporate Financial Management course. Really. “The Great Gorilla/Banana Chase” has become the stuff of Mendoza College legend, along with the teacher/merry prankster behind the stunt.

Ackermann, who has seven teaching awards, came up with the prank several years back as a way to ease his students’ “first-exam jitters.” A little joke would lighten things up, put them at ease, and enhance their performance, he reasoned. Plus, it would give them something to talk about at their 50th reunion.

While the 50-year-old professional specialist in finance goes to incredible lengths to make a difficult subject intelligible, it’s not just unconventional teaching techniques and his command of finance that have placed him in the company of some of the most popular ND faculty. Mostly, he has garnered universal respect and admiration by dint of his nearly unlimited devotion to his students since he first joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1998.

At the 2009 commencement ceremonies, Ackermann received a standing ovation from the entire graduating class—not just from business students—when his name was announced as the recipient of the University’s Joyce Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. The 2012 Mendoza College undergraduate commencement was attended by several Ackermann clones—oversized “Fathead” posters of Ackermann, carried to the ceremony by adoring graduating seniors.

This past July, he was featured in a Bloomberg Businessweek article on all-time favorite business school professors. Echoing the sentiments of the article, Caitlin Lynch (’11), a securities analyst with J.P. Morgan Chase in New York, says Ackermann was the first teacher that other students told her she absolutely had to take while at Notre Dame.

“I remember coming out of my first class with him thinking his would be the best ever. And I was absolutely right. I think he is the epitome of what Notre Dame strives for in its teachers, and what the University hopes for in its graduates. His calling card is just a crazy amount of generosity.”

For Ackermann, his students are a 24/7/365 commitment. During the spring semester when he teaches his intro to finance course (four back-to-back sections of 125 students each), it’s not unusual for him to sleep only two hours a night on weekdays. Even in the fall, when “all” he is doing is advising students and alumni, as well as engaging in community service, his workday often approaches 16 or more hours.

His schedule one day late last September ran like this: Get up around 2 a.m., write recommendation letters and answer email until 7 a.m., when his wife and three children got up to begin their day. (Students have been known to email Ackermann with a question in the wee hours and are stunned to receive a reply minutes after hitting the “send” button.)

From 10:30 a.m. until noon, he was interviewed for this article, followed by meetings with students scheduled every half-hour until 2:30 p.m. Next, it was off to his daughter’s high school to help with a recycling program she had initiated. At 5:30, he met an international student at Rolfs Sports Recreation Center for a Ping-Pong match. (“He’s coming for the game, but I want to talk to him about academics. He’s very gifted, but shy.”) Then, from 7 p.m. until about midnight, Ackermann had personal finance advising sessions scheduled over the phone with eight students and alumni.

As if he didn‘t have enough to do, the Amherst College alum, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also assists with football and men’s basketball recruiting, bringing his individualized touch to student-athlete campus visits. He meticulously researches each high school athlete in order to connect with them—to better make the case for Notre Dame.

A recruit who had won an ESPN Espy Award for an amazing game-winning shot made sitting on the court was stunned when Ackermann greeted him by re-enacting the play in his office with a Nerf basketball. (Unfortunately, despite Ackermann’s best efforts, the recruit later changed his mind and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, his home state.)

“Quite frankly, I look at Carl as being part of the coaching staff,” says Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey. “Families of recruits rave about his passion and enthusiasm, not only about the academic side of Notre Dame, but also the basketball program. He really knows it—how we play, my style, everything.”

Every year, Ackermann’s goal is to get to know all his students and hopefully engage most, if not all, of them. A daunting task since “all” means 500. To jumpstart those relationships—which often extend beyond graduation—he asks each student for a photo with his or her name, hometown and a few personal facts written on the back. By the third week, Ackermann generally knows everyone by sight, as well as name and hometown.

He encourages students to drop over to his office and he goes the extra mile to engage them—literally. When schedules conflict, Ackermann sometimes drives students to the airport so they can chat en route. He’s been known to go long-distance jogging, play Ping-Pong, one-on-one basketball, Putt-Putt golf—you name it, he’ll be there, if it means he can talk to you.

The son of two teachers (his father was a University of Massachusetts philosophy professor and his mom taught English as a second language), Ackermann is convinced that “outside the classroom” is where important learning happens. “Students find it unusual for a professor to reach out to them first,” he notes. “When the professor does that, they‘re less intimidated. And if they’re comfortable, they’ll ask me things, and then I can direct them. Creating these lines of communication opens up so many possibilities for intellectual growth,” he says.

On average, he has one-on-one coffee chats with 40 students every week, usually at the café in the Hammes Bookstore. Conversations have ranged across the map from career, educational and financial advice, to what’s the best way to fall out of a moving vehicle without killing yourself.

Personal finance has become something of a personal cause, for a reason that touches one of Ackermann’s most cherished values: giving back. Each year, he conducts a Universitywide spring workshop for all seniors. He also delivers more than 400 personal-finance advising sessions over the phone and in person with students and alumni, and regularly talks to community groups. 

“One thing that I discovered early on in my career is that students learn a lot about the theory of finance in our courses, but not very much about the practice of it,” says Ackermann. “I had students, even finance majors, who would call me back after graduation and say, ‘Hey, I now have a 401(k) or I have a little bit of money to invest, how do I go about doing it?’ That was a moment where I realized, wow, there’s just a tremendous need here.”

He soon found these discussions about how to set up a personal lifelong financial plan involved something much deeper: a personal lifelong plan, period.

“So many of the students come out of Notre Dame with these tremendous aspirations to help others,” says Ackermann. “To have these kinds of retirement accounts set up properly and churning sort of behind the scenes gives them the ability to contribute both financially and with their time, because they’ll be able to retire maybe earlier and devote their energy fully to important social causes. That, I think, is going to be a really powerful engine for service in the future.”

A word of warning to those who call Ackermann, thinking they will get him to just sort through Roth IRAs and 403(b)s: He’s not going to make it that simple. “They have to be able to articulate 
to me a vision of what they would do with that money to help others, and if they don’t have a vision for that, then we hang up and they have to call me back with that vision before we’ll have that conversation,” he says. “They always do, by the way. But the reason I think that is so important is that when they get to that point later, they have a tangible vision they can begin to implement. They don’t have to spend a couple of years thinking about it.”

It comes as no surprise that all this personal attention has created a band of intensely devoted fans. “Carl has been a tremendous mentor,” says Bryan Jackson (’09), an analyst with a private-equity firm in New York. “I consider him a close friend, and I’d like to feel my relationship is unique, but I think a lot of people feel that way. And that’s to his credit.”

Here’s why Jackson and so many are drawn to Ackermann: He teaches finance, but his teaching is that life isn’t about money. He acts as if people matter. But it’s not “as if;” they really do. That’s his most important lesson for his students.

And for the rest of us.