What is your image of a graduate-school professor? Based on my student experiences, I think of an older person standing behind a raised lectern, well separated from the large number of students who are madly taking notes on the words that flow so composedly from the oracle’s lips. Such a scene feels a bit like being present at the fountain of all knowledge.

My interactions with such professors were quite limited. In law school I was called on just once or twice a semester to answer a difficult question intended to redirect the subject being presented. I had even fewer interactions in business school. I mostly listened to business professors draw on experiences that none of the students had, and I was left feeling ignorant and foolish.

I well remember three wonderful exceptions. The most memorable was a professor who merely provided loose guidance concerning a team consulting assignment that five of us did for a well-known magazine. Except for receiving occasional encouragement, we were on our own and we loved it!

In another class the professor taught us how to make better decisions, drawing on the latest research. It was the most useful course I ever took, yet most of what I learned came through applying the information to practical problems that interested me.

In a third course the professor put us in situations where we had to think like someone of a different race or ethnicity, an experience that made me realize how narrow my perspective was on many issues. My perceptions and thinking were permanently broadened.

As a graduate school professor, I honor these learning experiences by attempting to emulate what these excellent teachers did for me. In doing so I’m fortunate to be teaching at a university that emphasizes applying what is learned to work and careers. That was the philosophy of Rushmore’s late founder, Michael Cox, Ph.D. It was also his practice as a professor, providing yet another model for me of how to make graduate-school learning more valuable.

I am delighted to continue being engaged in this approach under the university’s current leader, Dean Alan Guinn. In Alan, I’ve found still another model for how to make a difference for students: Be a servant who helps students learn, rather than act as a taskmaster directing all that they do.

When I initially described the familiar scene of large numbers of students bent over their computers and desks taking notes while the professor speaks from a script, I’m sure that you sensed that there was an element of inequality involved: The professor was in charge and the students had better hop to it! If a student missed something during the lecture, that was just too bad for the student.

Consider the alternative: The professor sees herself or himself as there to assist the student, who is in charge. If the student doesn’t learn, the fault lies with the professor, not the student! Does that sound like a reversal from your learning experiences?

Let me describe more about Dean Guinn and his teaching style to help you appreciate this approach’s great potential for students learning more. Long interested in the opportunity to improve education through online learning, Alan began applying his philosophy at the university in 1999. His experience soon impressed those at his own alma mater, and professors there sought his advice while designing their first online learning program.

Here’s how the dean describes working with students in words that perfectly capture the spirit of being a servant professor: “I would not have traded getting to know the students here for anything else. I’ve learned at least as much in my teaching as I’ve shared. Our students are simply amazing.”

He gives students the bulk of the credit for the learning that has been accomplished: “The quality of students we attract is ‘head and shoulders’ above so many other learning institutions. Our learners are C-level executives. They are published authors. While they already know a great deal, they also want to learn more. Confident and interested, they are willing and able to charge forward and do the work, providing their own motivation. In the process, they generally use our professors as resources for gaining more opportunity — not as ‘crutches’ for basic learning.”

Alan credits the close, continuing association between students and professors as an important contributor to making such learning more productive: “Rare indeed is the school that offers one-on-one work with a faculty member, and my experience has shown me that many students could not afford to use a professor as a consultant at consultant rates. Our students have full access to the professor in their coursework and as an advisor concerning issues that confront them in their business and professional careers.”

He also favors “real-time” learning that quite rapidly provides practical benefits: “Students take classes that will assist them in their professional careers. I’ve often joked that you can read some textbooks and choose a paper topic this week, polish your notes the next week, do your research and write a paper in the next two weeks, and immediately apply what you’ve learned to your work or career.”

Our dean certainly isn’t stuck in the past while serving students. He’s continually looking forward to new ways to better assist today’s and tomorrow’s students. Here’s just one of many trends that he’s encouraging: “The Ph.D. opportunity to combine course papers into a published book is an option being explored and chosen by more and more students. Students recognize that it’s no longer enough to obtain a degree; they need to be known through both social media and as an expert in their field of endeavor. There is no better way to achieve that ‘noted’ status than through publication and social-media recognition.”

Yet Dean Guinn is committed to retaining the best of what’s working well, such as by applying the Oxford tutorial system to online learning. Here are his observations: “It is a superior system unique in online learning that offers students benefits unavailable to most graduate students, such as the ability to communicate with so many experts in their fields of study and to establish long-term working relationships with published authors and experts.”

In pursuing such goals, he maintains a humble perspective. “You’d think that with over 40 years of business-development experience, I might be approaching something akin to a knowledge level that I’d consider significant, but I’m going to be honest — I learn new things every day — and I hope that I always will.”

I was especially drawn to his comment about the rewards of being such a professor: “I want our learners to see this as a time to try their wings, a time to test out theories they may have about management or business, learning or teaching, creating opportunity, or just expanding other fields of knowledge. If that is their take-away, we’ve done our job, and their lives will truly be enriched. That’s the best paycheck of all.”

Well, many people talk a good game. How should you determine if a professor is actually going to function as a servant in helping you advance your work or career? I’ve listed a few methods you can use to check out the reality behind the promises:

1. Ask recent graduates of schools you are considering what their interactions have been with professors during and after graduation, and what work and career benefits they gained because of these interactions.

2. Check out the career improvements, if any, that a university’s recent graduates have experienced during and immediately after completing their studies.

3. With permission, speak with employers and colleagues of recent graduates to determine their views about how much these individuals improved in effectiveness and credibility due to their studies.

4. Speak with professors about how they will help you learn about what interests you.

5. Ask professors about their recent practical experiences and research concerning what you want to learn.

From what you find out, I suspect that a few professors at one graduate school will stand out for their abilities and willingness to act as eager and effective servants for their students. If you want to gain the most from your learning, you should earn your graduate degree with these professors!

What are you waiting for?

Author's Bio: 

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit