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The Globe and Mail

Why MBA students flock to the toughest profs

Illustration by Stephane Poirier/for Report on Business Magazine

McGill University finance professor Sujata Madan bars students from bringing laptops to her class. The same goes for cellphones. And if you'd rather chat with friends than work on a problem that she provides 15 minutes of class time to tackle, there's a good chance she'll ask you to leave.

"I've been known to not be soft," she says from Copenhagen, where the academic director of the MBA program at the Desautels Faculty of Management is teaching a summer course.

With sites like giving students a chance to publicly fire back at profs who give them a hard time, you'd expect disciplinarians like Madan to be rare, and feared. Yet students love Madan, so much that they nominated her for the McGill-wide Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2011. She won.

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Queen's University finance professor Bill Cannon has a similar reputation on campus. As one former student put it, Cannon "taught the most terrifying and hardest finance class in, as far as I can tell, the world." But then the student added: "He was really sweet and everyone loved him, a victory considering even [some of the most diligent students] failed his class." Cannon's teacher evaluation rating this past year, as measured by a university-administered survey of students, was 4.9 out of 5.

Tough love doesn't usually earn professors extra points, but Cannon's and Madan's students realize that the high standards will pay off in the long run. They also respect that both profs really want to teach. It's their thing, not a side job that takes them away from their research.

Madan started leading classes as a way to make extra cash while completing her doctoral studies. "I fell in love with it. Forget the PhD," she says, noting that she never finished it. "This is what I wanted to do with my life."

As for Cannon, though he earned a PhD in business economics from Harvard in 1976, making him a hot commodity in the private sector, he turned to teaching, and loves it. "I tell my students that they are my work–they're not an interruption to my work," he says.

Both professors are so devoted that they create their class materials from scratch, often collecting concepts from an array of different textbooks. Madan says this encourages students to come to class to follow along, and to learn by working through problems together.

Cannon also goes so far as to mark each and every one of his students' exams, a task most professors hand off to their teaching assistants. His responses to students' answers are sometimes even longer than the student's original attempt to answer the question.

This attention to detail forces students to "up their game," Cannon says. And it works. "I totally wanted to do well for him, and worked hard," said one Queen's grad who went on to become an investment banker.

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But what about marks? MBAs do need to get jobs after graduation. Cannon says that his class averages are often just a percentage point or two below those handed out by other profs–but he has to adjust them to get them there.

Marks, however, aren't the end goal, he says. "I want you to judge me on how successful you are in your business career, five years or 10 years after you leave Queen's."

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