More Than a Class Act

For hundreds of finance majors Carl Ackermann is a teacher extraordinaire, making the subject richly rewarding. But it’s what he does beyond the classroom that earns his highest marks.

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Before we get started, a heads-up for prospective finance majors: During your semester in Carl’s intro course there will come a day of warm sunshine for the first time in a while, when blankets checkerboard the quads and Frisbees float on the breeze, exerting the magnetic pull of a UFO’s tractor beam. You will be inclined to skip class that day.

One absent student among 130 in your section — and Carl teaches four sections, 520 students a semester, you can do the math, you’ll be a freaking finance major — how could you possibly be missed? And, anyway, it’s Carl, the generous, gregarious, easygoing guy all the students love because he cares about you as human beings, not just as notches on a grading curve. What could be more human than a college sophomore succumbing to the temptations of the sun-kissed campus instead of the classroom?

Carl gets it. After more than 20 years on the Notre Dame faculty, he knows attendance will plummet that day from 95 percent to something like half, and he comes prepared. One doesn’t receive the Nolan Professorship for Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction without understanding the seasonal patterns of student life.

But he’s not going to read you the riot act, that’s not his style, so the urge will be strong to put Philosophy 101 to practical use and ask yourself: If there’s no risk of getting yelled at, is there really any risk at all?

There is.

The risk you run is receiving a phone call. It will come from a friend in the same class, so you’ll probably feel compelled to answer. Your friend will be acting as party to a conspiracy. Experience has taught Carl that students who show up are only too eager to spring a trap on fugitive friends. So he asks for volunteers to call (that is, to call out) anyone they know who’s missing for meteorological reasons.

Once swept up in the cellular searchlight, your voice will be amplified through the speaker that Carl schlepps in for the occasion. “And then,” he says, “we hear their pathetic excuses for why they’re not in class.”

That voice on speakerphone could be you, prospective finance major.

The more you know.

Carl Ackermann never had a Carl Ackermann, so he had to create one.

The littlest thing taught him the impact of a teacher taking notice of students as more than interchangeable vessels for decanting knowledge. He was an undergraduate rushing to turn in a music theory assignment before Thanksgiving. In his haste, he got some dirt on a corner of the paper. When the assignment came back after break, he saw that the professor had drawn an arrow pointing to the smudge and scribbled, “What is this, some Thanksgiving gravy?”

“I thought, wow, that was just really cool that he noticed that detail,” Ackermann says. “That little personal touch actually meant a lot to me.”

That was all. A note about dirt. But it was such a rare instance of the professorial made personal during his student years at Amherst College and the University of North Carolina that it became “the catalyst” to make his own career a master class in forging teacher-student relationships.

One of his methods for creating those bonds helps explain why it’s not so easy to ditch class on that day the sun comes out. The usual routine — impossible during this fall’s pandemic-crimped semester — involves Carl (he insists students call him by his first name) taking a picture of every student on the first day. He thinks their first-year orientation ID photos are too dated by the time they migrate, mostly as sophomores, into his classroom. In the next class, he asks them to write about themselves on the back of their photos — academic ambitions, sure, but also extracurricular activities, personal interests, motivating values.

“I then commit that information to memory,” Professor Ac — Carl — says. “And that really helps me generate conversations with them not only during the semester, but beyond.”

To convince them that he means what he says, he’ll often use the information the students provide to initiate contact. Maybe they’ve noted volunteer work — the one subject that inspires him as much as finance — so he’ll get in touch to ask more about their service and praise them for giving their time.

“I think they’re surprised, very surprised, to hear from me at first,” he says, “but once I do that, that’s really the key moment where they feel entirely comfortable then reaching back.”

So, it’s not just that Carl knows your face — could pick you out of a lineup of truants, so to speak — it’s that he knows you, that he’s put in the effort to learn about your individual aspirations, burdens, idiosyncrasies. There’s a pretty good chance, by that October day redolent of last summer, or April’s tease of the next one, that he’s had a memorable interaction or correspondence with you, personally.

In the acquisitive world of finance, where students admit feeling peer pressure to pursue prestigious jobs and the salaries associated with them, Carl reminds them of the value of their individual ambitions, apart from the crowd.

Sometimes those moments arise from uncanny coincidences, like two kids in the same class last year declaring themselves unbeatable at Connect Four.

“Oh, really?” Carl thought.

Each of the showoffs was summoned to a meeting with him at the same time, unbeknownst to the other. He put the game on the table and left, checking in later to see which one backed up their proclamation of invincibility.

There tend to be a few students every semester interested in chess, a hobby most indulge online. Carl introduces them on the basis of their common pastime.

Students come to understand from gestures like those that they can reach out to Carl about pretty much anything, if they didn’t know that before they got to his class — or even if they aren’t in his class. He gets emails from students he hasn’t taught, hasn’t met and maybe never will speak to in person. The messages say that they heard in a dorm conversation that Carl would be just the guy to ask about their pressing personal concern. Requests for dating advice he might redirect to a rector, but for the most part he offers whatever counsel he can, regardless of the subject.

“My view is that I’m in the service industry and any opportunity to serve that they wish, I’m happy to do,” Carl says, “whether that be academic or outside of that.”

This is long, hard work, humanizing a large lecture course, addressing the many and varied needs of hundreds of stressed-out undergrads. Carl’s known for sending emails at the weary, bleary hours that students are prone to keep. He has to cram just like they do to finish all that he assigns himself.

Those emails are not formulaic missives about class requirements. They fizz with exclamation points!!! and ALL CAPS, bubbling over with encouragement, enthusiasm and curiosity about the recipients’ lives.

“His primary concern is how happy you are and how successful your future’s going to be,” says junior finance and philosophy major Aidan Becklund, who took Carl’s class last year. “It wasn’t deadlines and grades and stuff. And although he kept to that, exactly as a professor should do, he showed where his true priorities were.”

And that’s just for current students. Never mind the steady stream from past classes who come knocking for recommendation letters, which he personalizes just like those student emails. There are also alumni requesting investment advice, which Carl happily dispenses — provided the beneficiaries of his wisdom have a plan for how to use their resources toward social causes.

Keep in mind that this is all above and beyond the full-time job of teaching no-slouch courses such as Fundamentals of Finance and Corporate Financial Management that provide a foundation for a demanding major. No wonder Carl sleeps like an undergrad.

The fall semester was kind of a drag, he’s not going to lie.

Large as Carl’s classes are, they typically have a participatory spirit, a communal energy that originates with him and ricochets around the room. He relies, for example, on student facial expressions to assess the group’s emotional temperature, ad-libbing away from indications of boredom and confusion to bring them back around to engagement and enjoyment. Try puzzling out those cues while your students are wearing masks.

He’ll offer fist bumps for correct answers or toss candy and drinks around the room, all off-limits under COVID-19 precautions. Other favorite mood-lightening diversions had to be mothballed, too. Like one Becklund recalls that involved Carl coordinating beforehand with a student to douse him with . . . what was it? Silly String? Whipped cream? Something like that. 

“He said he wore his bad suit that day so that could happen,” Becklund says.

So, what’s a class session like with so much of his playbook shelved? Let’s go check it out.

The Dahnke Family Ballroom in the Duncan Student Center is not designed for this. Its smallest normal use, for a conference, accommodates more than 250 people, about double one of Carl’s classes. A wedding reception up there could have 1,800 guests. Today, fewer than 150 students, spaced at socially distanced intervals, span almost the length of the football field down below.

Four big screens — two at the front, two at the back — project the PowerPoint slides for the lesson. Personal finance will be the topic.

Ackermann 2020
Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

In a gray suit and sky-blue tie, Carl looks every inch the finance professional. His beaked mask adds a birdlike affect to his face, an unfun, unintentional avian resemblance — unlike, say, when he runs around in a gorilla suit to take the edge off students’ stress before an exam. That’s on purpose, for tension-relieving laughs.

A mic clipped to his lapel amplifies Carl’s voice, only somewhat muffled through the mask, to the far reaches of the ballroom. He begins with effusive praise for the students, for “best ever” exam performance, “best ever” attendance and, in the face of COVID-19 frustrations and disruptions, for “the most terrific, positive, resilient attitudes of any group that I will ever have.”

Moving from one end of the vast space to the other, Carl holds his glasses, slipping them on for the occasional quick glance at his notes, then off again as he continues his lecture. From the computer at the podium he clicks on the website of financial-services firm Morningstar, choosing a random mutual fund to analyze based on the basics of individual investing that he’s introducing.

A worthy fund, Carl explains, should have an expense ratio — that is, management costs as a proportion of total assets — below 0.2 percent. Turnover, or the fraction of stocks a fund trades in a given year, should be under 10 percent to minimize the transaction costs investors pay. And there should be no entry or exit fees.

Usually he’ll ask for volunteers from the class to divulge a mutual fund they’ve invested in so he can evaluate it based on those factors. Now and then there’s a good one out there, but Carl expects to “bash almost every one,” convinced that most have excessive fees and costs. That reminds him of one time — this would’ve been about 10 years ago — when a student offered up a fund for his analysis.

“I thought it was a terrible fund, I thought its fees and costs were really excessive,” he tells the class. “So I dissected the fund. Trashed it.”

It was bad enough that Carl felt compelled to ask the student why he would invest in it.

“Because,” he said, “my father is the fund manager.”

Carl stood his ground. “I’m sure your dad is an amazing person,” he said, “but I think the fees and costs of this fund are going to make it underperform the market in the years ahead.”

He and the student placed a wager on the spot about how the fund would do over the next decade.

“I just collected,” Carl says. “And I won handily.”

All this to emphasize the long-term impact of little differences in investment decisions. What seem like minor costs add up over time, but — this is the good part — so does your money if you start early and make steady contributions. Carl’s got the charts to illustrate the exponential growth.

Put a thousand bucks a month into a retirement fund starting with your first postgraduate job, keep it up throughout an “investment lifetime” and, by age 65, you’d have $7.4 million. Students of the current generation, Carl says, call that “savage” or “sick.”

The importance of investing young cannot be overstated. Wait 10 years to start contributing to that retirement fund, at age 32 instead of 22, and the tally at retirement would be $2.8 million, “way less than half” of what you could have accumulated.

And consider this wrinkle: If you begin investing at age 22 but stop at 32 — socking away that thousand bucks a month for just those 10 years and then letting it grow — you’d still end up with $4.6 million at age 65. The hypothetical sucker up above, who didn’t invest until age 32 but contributed for three decades after that, ends up with almost $2 million less, and probably gets sick in the traditional sense.

How does all that add up? Through what amateur financial adviser Albert Einstein — “This dude right here,” Carl says, flashing his photo on the screen — called “the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.” Compound interest.

Carl identifies as a finance dork, and his excitement for the field overflows, but so does that other defining aspect of his nature: the belief that students should use these tools not just for greater wealth, but for the greater good.

“Think of all the people you could help,” he says in the midst of his investment advice, a refrain he returns to again and again. “That should be all the motivation you need.”

In the acquisitive world of finance, where students admit feeling peer pressure to pursue prestigious jobs and the salaries associated with them, Carl reminds them of the value of their individual ambitions, apart from the crowd. Aspiring doctors in the class, he notes, might not be able to start investing while they’re in medical school during that essential postgrad decade he just described. But the remuneration and other intangible rewards of those service-oriented professions, he reassures them, will more than make up the difference.

“He made it seem like it was very individual and wherever you go in life, it’s really about what you want to do and where your passions lie,” Becklund says.

More than names and faces, then, Carl remembers the humanity of each student. And he goes out of his way, amid the blur of work and allure of achievement, to make sure that they don’t forget that either.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.