By Gabe Cherry
“Your teaching style will crash and burn with the millennials.” That’s what friends told University of Michigan alum Bill Hall in 2004 when he took on a teaching role at U-M for the first time in more than two decades. He had volunteered to teach an entrepreneurship course for MBAs at the Ross School of Business, his first foray into teaching since 1980, when he left his professorship at Ross to launch a successful career in business.
Some told him that his teaching style, which relies heavily on students to collaborate, debate and learn from each other, wouldn’t work with a generation of students that grew up interacting through text messages and social media.
“They were wrong,” he said. “When I got into the classroom, I realized that everything I’d read about the millennials was totally incorrect. I found that the kids had the same curiosity, the same respect for knowledge, authority and accountability that I remember from my first days as a professor.”
Hall, 71, did find that plenty had changed during nearly a quarter century away from the classroom. But his experience with today’s students was worlds apart from that of those who suggest that millennials aren’t up to the big challenges they’ll face in the years ahead.
“Today’s kids have a set of experiences that I could never even have imagined when I was growing up as a poor kid in Adrian, Michigan in the 1950s,” he said. “They’ve grown up in a more diverse world, they’ve travelled more, and I think computers and smartphones have given them a greater interest in knowledge and learning.”
He was so inspired by what he saw that he has returned to teach the same class every fall since 2004. He has also developed and co-instructed two more courses for the College of Engineering over the past ten years; one on entrepreneurial leadership and one on the emerging ethical issues in personalized medicine.
Late in 2014, he made an even bigger bet on the future with a $2 million chair endowment to the U-M Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint department that spans both engineering and medicine. The William and Valerie Hall Chair of Biomedical Engineering will fund ongoing research in areas like cancer treatment and tissue engineering. Hall hopes it will also spark conversations that will take students out of their comfort zones and get them working across disciplines to tackle the challenges that will define the future.
“In my experience, innovation happens when you put business leaders and scientists in the same room and get them to talk to each other,” Hall said. “That’s why I think joint departments like Biomedical Engineering are so important. We need people who can work across the boundaries of science, engineering, medicine and business more easily than in the past.”
It started with Sputnik
Crossing boundaries has been a prominent feature of Hall’s own career, the roots of which he can trace all the way back to a fateful evening in 1957, when he saw Sputnik streak through the dark sky over his mother’s back yard. Though he was only 12 years old, Hall says he saw his future in the Soviet satellite.
“I can still remember the odd mix of amazement and fear that Sputnik stirred in me,” he said. “It was incredible that people could put something into orbit. But back in 1957, it was also very unnerving that the Soviets had put this thing over our heads. I saw that and realized that I’d better go into aerospace engineering.”
Four years later, he turned up on the U-M engineering campus with a $150 scholarship (enough to cover his freshman tuition) and a job as a busboy in the West Quad dining hall. By the time he was a junior, he was already working in the aerospace industry, doing trajectory work for NASA’s Apollo program. His first brush with business came soon after when he signed up for a statistics class at the Ross School of Business. It was a course that changed the trajectory of his life.
“I fell in love with statistics, with commerce, with the power of business to bring technology from the laboratory to the marketplace,” he said. “I wanted to instill that passion into others, to teach students that jobs are important not just to make money but to add value to society. That’s why I started teaching and that’s why I came back to it.”
Hall taught from 1970 until 1980, when he left his professorship for a stint in the automotive components industry followed by a string of successful startups in capital goods and aerospace systems. Over the years, he has maintained an active relationship with the university, holding seats on a variety of U-M boards including the Zell Lurie Entrepreneurship Center, the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship, the University of Michigan Health System’s Depression Center, the Life Science Institute and a co-chair position with the Victors for Michigan capital campaign in Chicago.
“The luckiest Wolverine alive”
Bill Hall has been many things since that first day of class in 1961: a student, professor, engineer, CEO, founder, venture capitalist, husband, father, and philanthropist. But he’ll tell you that there are only two labels that span the entire 55 years between then and now. First: a Wolverine. And second: Lucky. Very lucky.
“I consider myself to be the luckiest Wolverine alive,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I got to be a college professor, I worked in the aerospace industry when it was booming, I started and grew a bunch of companies, creating jobs and satisfied shareholders. And today, I get to work with students at the University of Michigan who are getting ready to lead us into the future. And if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to get a scholarship to U-M, none of this would have happened.”
Through his teaching and his gift to the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Hall says he hopes to create similar opportunities for the millennial generation and beyond. His involvement with U-M has convinced him that, while the world they inherit is even more challenging than the world he grew up in, it’s just as full of possibility and promise.
“I tell skeptics: go to a classroom and meet the millennials, watch how they think and see for yourself what a bright future we have,” he said. “I have full optimism that the next generation is going to solve whatever problems are put in front of them, and I can’t tell you what an honor it is to play a small role in it.”