“The Great Gorilla/Banana Chase” has been the stuff of Mendoza College legend for 20 years, along with the professor behind the stunt. The basic script involves a gorilla walking 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.
What happens next? A merry chase around the classroom — and 500 amused students who at least momentarily can put aside their first-exam jitters.
The rest of the professor’s office is startlingly bare, especially considering his outsized influence on the lives of Notre Dame students as he teaches them about the transformational power of wealth-building as a way of contributing to the greater good. But to those who know him, it’s no big surprise. His “office” is in myriad locations, from the bookstore to the basketball court to cafes to mini-golf courses, as part of his mission to get to know students individually and personally by meeting up in places important to them.
Photography by Matt Cashore '94
(Carl Ackermann with Bella Rogers '24 at an advising session in Duncan Student Center's Hagerty Family Cafe. Photography by Matt Cashore '94.)
The "Great Gorilla/Banana Chase” is just one example of how professor Carl Ackermann has set himself apart as a teacher and has endeared himself to students.
Throughout his years at Mendoza, the Nolan Professor for Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction has received more than a dozen major awards for his teaching and service. This includes being recognized nationally as a favorite professor by Bloomberg Businessweek and Poets & Quants, being a multiple-time recipient of the Senior Class Fellow Award and receiving the University's Grenville Clark Award.
In the fall semester, Ackermann teaches four back-to-back sections with 105 students each of Foundations of Finance. Crazily enough, he prides himself in knowing each student’s name and hometown. He does this by asking the students for a photo that includes on the back their name and other personal facts. By the third week, Ackermann knows everyone by sight.
His commitment to his students may partially stem from being raised by two teachers: his father was a University of Massachusetts philosophy professor and his mother taught English as a second language. They helped Ackermann understand that important learning happens “outside the classroom,” which is why he goes out of his way to meet with students, literally.
On average, Ackermann has one-on-one coffee chats with approximately 30 students every week, typically taking place somewhere like the café in the Hammes Bookstore. He encourages students to drop by his office, but when schedules conflict, he puts in the extra effort. He has gone as far as driving students to the airport so they can chat en route. He’s done long-distance jogging, played ping-pong, one-on-one basketball, Putt-Putt golf — you name it. Conversations have ranged across the map from career and academic advice to financial planning.
In fact, 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 University-wide spring workshop for all seniors. This need for personal finance advice evolved from a realization that many of his students may learn about financial theory, but not practice.
He delivers more than 300 personal-finance advising sessions over the phone and in person with students and alumni, and regularly talks to community groups.
And this is why so many students are drawn to Ackermann: He teaches finance, but his teaching is that life isn’t about money; it’s about service to others. That’s his most important lesson for his students.