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Timely teaching

Back to School | Texas business school teaches that leading a meaningful life is more important than dollar signs

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas-Time. In the fine movie Gettysburg (1993), Robert E. Lee is making decisions that will make the difference between life and death for thousands of soldiers and for the future of the Confederacy itself. Meanwhile, cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart is conforming to traditions involving personal honor, and Lee four times has to tell him, with increasing urgency, "There is no time for that!"

Jeff Sandefer, founder of (and master teacher within) the Acton School of Business, tells the same to applicants to his highly rated MBA program in Austin, Texas. When one prospective student asks, "Am I able to work while enrolled in Acton?" Sandefer replies, "There is no time for students to work while attending Acton. Students work 80 to 100 hours or more a week attending class, meeting in peer groups, and preparing cases." The Acton website states, "Time-entrepreneurs don't insult each other by wasting it. ... Here you'll get a transformational experience in less [than] half the time of other business programs-your time's way too valuable to waste."

Sandefer made his first entrepreneurial dollars by seeing undervalued time: After a company hired him to paint storage tanks, he saw paid-by-the-hour painters moving slowly in the west Texas heat and set up his own business that paid by work done. Individuals who worked quickly could earn a lot, so Sandefer (still in high school) was hiring football coaches and their players, and making a lot of money himself. He went on to gain a Harvard MBA and to found Sandefer Offshore (a highly profitable oil and gas company) and Sandefer Capital Partners (a half-billion-dollar energy investment fund).

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In recent years he has been influential in Texas policy discussions by zeroing in on students wasting time in college-often taking six or seven years to graduate, when they do, and often showing little or no increase in critical-thinking skills. He wants to zero out college personnel who don't contribute to the education of students. He critiques liberal arts professors paid $150,000 or more to teach three small classes, who waste much of their time writing journal articles on trivial subjects that only a handful of colleagues read.

But Sandefer hasn't set up his own college yet, partly because he believes lots of small, non-distinctive colleges will go out of business over the next decade, and big ones will either change or flounder. We talked near where the University of Texas at Austin is constructing more buildings, a pursuit Sandefer thinks is "insane. The bureaucracy is serving itself. It's like in the Soviet Union, which built walls to protect it from the outside while it was imploding on the inside."

Sandefer taught part-time at UT and helped to build a top entrepreneurship program, but left 10 years ago after the university persisted in emphasizing research over teaching and preferring professors who write journal articles over those who build successful businesses. He didn't back off then and hasn't since in his critique of conventional higher education, noting that it's built on exploiting taxpayers and playing on the sentiments of alumni.

Sandefer then did more than criticize: He created an MBA program that reflects business reality. Grading is on a forced curve, which means the lower-ranked students flunk out. Teaching is on a forced curve as well, with student evaluations of professors taken so seriously that the lowest-ranked loses his job. (The professors are part-timers with business careers of their own, and poor evaluations show a teacher that he should moonlight in a different trade.)

What the survivors get are classes appropriately low on the ladder of abstraction. Sandefer learned the case method approach while getting an MBA from Harvard, and uses it in his school to focus students' minds on business realities rather than abstract theories. At the same time, Acton recognizes that dollar signs can also become one of the abstractions, so statements about "meaning" abound: "We believe in building profitable businesses, but know leading a meaningful life is much more important," and "Learn how to make money. Learn how to live a life of meaning."

Sandefer's "Life of Meaning" course is required for all students, and he says three kinds are common. Some have already survived life-threatening crises and know how to remain unshaken during tough times. (They generally do well.) Some are angry because of "unresolved father issues." (To do well, they need to address their pasts.) Some come from prestige colleges, have had 4.0 grade point averages, have captained football teams. Sandefer says they may be unwilling to risk their successful self-images and need to get their noses bloodied.

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