Q&A with Duncan McDougall

December, 2009

Duncan McDougall

Duncan McDougall’s career has been a blend of real-world business experience and teaching. Since 1976, he has taught a variety of undergraduate and MBA business courses at PSU, directed the University’s nationally recognized Small Business Institute, and served as chair of the business department. An Amherst graduate who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in business administration from Harvard Business School, McDougall has also taught business courses at Boston University and held several managerial positions, most recently serving as president of Rochester Shoe Tree Company in Ashland, NH.

McDougall’s experience and expertise in business education made him an ideal candidate for a competitive Fulbright-funded teaching position at Babeş-Bolyai University [BBU] in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, one of the largest, most reputable, and dynamic higher education institutions in Romania and a university with which PSU has enjoyed a student and faculty exchange partnership since 2004.

In March 2008, McDougall learned of his Fulbright award and six months later found himself embarking on the adventure of a lifetime—living and teaching in Romania. Plymouth Magazine recently spoke with McDougall about his Fulbright year.

What inspired you to apply for the Fulbright?

I got a call from [Vice Provost] Dan Moore in July 2007. He had just come back from Cluj [Cluj-Napoca], where he had been visiting for several weeks. Babeş-Bolyai University had a Fulbright opening for the coming year and was looking for a versatile business professor who could teach a variety of courses. And Dan kindly thought of me. So, I applied.

What was your reaction when you learned you were awarded the Fulbright?

I was thrilled. I had never been to Eastern Europe, and I knew it would increase the cooperation between BBU and PSU and enrich my own experience in business education, as well.

What was your impression of BBU?

It’s huge. It has 21 faculties (colleges) and a reported student body of nearly 50,000. The university’s buildings are magnificent, with polished floors, large offices, and large open areas in the center.

It is a genuinely great university largely because of its breadth of academic subject offerings and its cultural diversity.

What surprised you the most about the Romanian education system?

One thing that surprised me was the fact that students don’t have to attend class. In fact, it’s against the rules to require students to attend lectures; professors cannot grade them on the basis of attendance in lectures.

Was that a difficult adjustment for you?

I was disappointed at first. In America, attendance is critical—it counts toward a student’s grade. In Romania, students are permitted to do the readings on their own, and take an exam at the end of the year. If they don’t pass the exam, they can take it again, and if they don’t pass again, they can petition, pay a fee, and take it a third time. As long as they petition and pay the fee, they can take the exam as many times as they need to until they pass.

Later, I learned that one of the reasons for the poor classroom attendance is that a great many of the students work 40 hours a week. They really count on taking the exam and passing it.

But I’m happy to say that, eventually, more students began attending my classes because they heard the classes were fun. On average, I had just over half of the students in each class coming to my lectures—the other faculty members said that was good!

What other differences did you discover?

The way that the education system works in Romania, the top students get free tuition. Of those students, the ones who are noted by the faculty as being outstanding are invited to stay for their master’s degrees. Those who do well in the master’s programs are invited to stay for their doctorates. As they are studying for their doctorates, they are usually made teaching assistants and begin teaching seminars. Once they’ve completed their PhDs, most of them are hired by the university.

However, in the Romanian system, practical business experience is almost non-existent in the business faculty. I consider that a huge disadvantage. But in Romania, if you leave academia, it is very difficult to get back in.

What was your impression of Romanian students?

Professor Duncan McDougall (center) with two of his students on graduation day at Babes-Bolyai University in Romania. Photo courtesy of Duncan McDougall.

They were really fun to teach. I could make references to ancient history or the Bible or Shakespeare—even American history—and they knew what I was talking about. In Romania, most of the traditional American college general education curriculum is taken in high school, so the students come to the university very well prepared. And from about third grade on, they take other languages, including English. They understand language well and have an excellent sense of grammar. I was very impressed.

Interestingly, prior to the start of the academic year, I had been told that Romanian students wouldn’t want to discuss anything in class; that they’d want to just listen to me lecture and take notes. So, I threw a case analysis at them the first day: I read the description of the situation, drew a few diagrams, and began asking them questions. The students got into case analysis immediately and we had wonderful discussions all semester. They were eager to talk and get involved.

What was your impression of your colleagues?

I enjoyed my colleagues. They were great people, all very nice to me. Though highly intellectual and very serious, they all had wonderful personalities and were very supportive. The older ones shared with me some marvelous stories about the revolution [the Romanian Revolution of 1989]. And the younger faculty members are excellent and eager to learn.

What inspired you to keep a blog of your Fulbright year in Romania?

Not long before I left for Romania, I was having dinner with my family and happened to mention that I wanted to keep a journal during my time there. My son Jesse said I needed a blog. So, into the computer room we went and five minutes later, I had my blog.

I discovered that if you could muster the energy at the end of the day to write a blog post and edit it, the effort was well worth it. There was so much happening every day that I would have gone crazy trying to remember everything. And it would have been too much to write longhand at the end of an exhausting day of teaching or travel. Once I committed the day’s events to the computer, I slept like a rock.

One great benefit to the blog was being able to read comments to my blog posts from family, friends, and colleagues both in Romania and in the U.S. It made the world feel smaller, and that was nice.

When he wasn’t teaching, McDougall took every opportunity to travel the country, make friends of all nationalities, and immerse himself in Romanian history and culture. Read more about his experiences both in and out of the classroom on his blog.

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