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Ming-Jer Chen
Photo by Peggy Harrison
Darden School professor Ming-Jer Chen

Chen on teaching and lifelong mentorship

By Elizabeth Kiem

The deans of the Darden School had been trying to recruit Ming-Jer Chen for a long time. Ever since 1996, when then-dean Leo Higdon asked him to join the school’s new initiative studying Asian business, Chen had been sizing up Darden as an intellectual partner.

At the time, the Taiwanese-born Chen was the only Asian faculty member in Columbia Business School’s management division. He did decide to leave Columbia, but went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where he was founding director of the Global Chinese Business Initiative program.

Yet he was still drawn to Darden’s academic philosophy. After four years at Wharton, he finally accepted U.Va.’s E. Thayer Bigelow Research Professorship of Business Administration last year. With his wife of 20 years and two young sons, Chen moved to Charlottesville, where he hopes to stay permanently.

“Coming here can allow me to play out fully the integrative nature of my professional activities. I can do basic research, applied research and at the same time, the kind of teaching commitment and support is just superb,” he enthused recently, gazing out his office window at the wide steps leading to Darden’s main entrance. “I have always been very interested in making a bridge to integrate classroom teaching and academic and applied research, which is what Darden values.”

“ The best teacher, the best researcher and the best manager is asking the right questions.”

Ming-Jer Chen
E. Thayer Bigelow
Research Professor of
Business Administration

Gareth Davis, a first-year student from Donegal, Ireland, knows what Chen is referring to. “Darden is the business school that is centered around teaching. You know right away if a professor fits with the Darden culture. Professor Chen obviously does.”

In the classroom, Chen is vivacious, shuffling through moving blackboards like a deck of cards and actively engaging his students, whom he prefers to call “learning partners.” It is clear that they are inspired by the implicit challenge of the term. During a discussion on competitive response, one well-constructed answer prompted an invitation from the professor to sign up for his advanced course, and the rest of the class responded with applause.

Chen describes his teaching philosophy as life-long mentorship. “I value the close ties I maintain with many former students.”

His classroom reputation may be augmented by anecdotes, perhaps about Apple Computer whiz Steve Jobs, or the inner workings of Morgan Stanley or Bristol Myers Squibb. It is Chen’s close relationships with the lesser mortals of the business world that most impresses his students.

“He knows everyone in the class and their resumés off the top of his head,” said one first-year student.

At both Columbia and Wharton, Chen’s courses were among the most popular in the school, and he knows his worth as an educator. But, he says of Darden, “the teaching environment here is so strong that I’ve found myself pushed to another level.” In fact, he attributes the opportunity to teach undergrads at the McIntire School of Commerce as one of the main reasons for his accepting Darden’s offer.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chen says that consulting for executives of top multinational firms in the U.S., Asia and Europe gives him invaluable experience to bring to the classroom. Chen also developed and conducted a nine-day regional training workshop for management professors from all 52 MBA programs in the People’s Republic of China, arguably making him a founding father of modern Chinese business education.

As a world-renowned expert on business strategy and competitive dynamics with a cultural background in the nuances of Chinese culture, Chen’s curriculum vitae is studded with prestigious awards, honors and memberships. But the credential of which Chen is unabashedly proud is his five-year tenure as chair of the Business Policy and Strategy Division of the Academy of Management, to which he was elected by the division’s 3,100 members.

“It is not an administrative popularity appointment. It is for intellectual leadership. They tend to elect those people who have made a major contribution,” says Chen.

Chen is not shy about pulling down portions of a voluminous archive of newspaper and magazine articles that have turned to him as a source. His views are sought out even more regularly since China’s entry to the World Trade Organization and the recent publication of his book, Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide. Half a dozen binders hold carefully preserved clips from Newsweek to Foreign Affairs.

The meticulous cataloguing is not just a show of professional pride. It’s also a hint of Chen’s one lost love – journalism.

Twenty-five years ago, Chen bucked tradition when he disregarded his high math scores to choose the social sciences over engineering as his course of higher study. In particular he was interested in journalism. Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings were rather unorthodox role models for a Taiwanese son of accountants, but they captured his imagination.

After careful consideration, Chen decided not to pursue his first passion. “At the last minute I decided I wasn’t ready, because of a lack of preparation, to join the best journalism school,” he explains. Instead, in 1981 at the age of 27, he enrolled in the University of Maryland’s business school. It was his first trip to the States.

But if his prominence in the scholarly world of business management would seem a complete digression from the passion of his youth, consider this “Confucian business principle” from Chen’s creed: “The best teacher, the best researcher and the best manager is asking the right questions.”


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