Teaching the language of business

MIT Sloan Teacher of the Year award recipient, Joseph Weber

Joseph Weber

In many ways, accounting professor Joseph Weber is a magician, taking a subject he jokes is “notoriously boring” and making it far less so.

“People think accounting is complicated and full of rules. Some dread taking it,” explains Weber, the Norna Shalaby Sarofim Associate Professor of Economics, Finance and Accounting. “But as the language of business, it is important. I want to give students the basics, but also watch them really get it.”

For the past seven years, Weber has done just that. His Financial Accounting course has become one of the most popular among first-year MBA candidates. Last year, he was named a Sloan Teacher of the Year. “I guess I have been able to convince them the work is important,” says Weber, who has been able to turn a crucial, but often tedious, part of running a business into something students enjoy — no small feat.

Staying with what you know — and love

But Weber has had good practice. He started keeping the books for his parents' hardware store back in Orange County, NY when he was 12 years old. He was the first person in his family to go to college, and it seemed natural for him to study something in which he was already well versed. “It just made sense,” Weber explains.

After graduating from Bucknell University, Weber became a CPA and worked in a variety of settings, but quickly decided he wanted to go back to school so that he could teach. “I wanted to be able to influence young people,” he says.

In 2000, Weber completed his PhD in accounting from Pennsylvania State University, where he learned to love research “as much if not more than teaching,” he says. It was the research opportunities that initially brought Weber to MIT, but in many ways, it is the students who keep him fresh. “I love watching when the light goes on, when someone finally understands something I am teaching to them.”

The ideal career

Weber enjoys watching his students develop their careers and being a part of helping them to begin. “The other day one of my students from 10 years ago called to tell me he was running a division in a large multinational corporation, and was dealing with some of the performance measurement issues we talked about in class,” Weber says.

According to Weber, his career is ideal. “I get to get up in front of a group and talk about something I really enjoy,” he says. As a professor, Weber, who earned tenure in May, says he enjoys the best of both worlds. He gets the social rewards of teaching — “I enjoy being the center of attention,” he says with a laugh — along with the personal rewards of research. Weber has published a number of papers and is currently awaiting publication on several more.

Some of Weber's recent research has dealt with publicly traded companies who wish to withhold proprietary information from their investors. “When firms withhold information, they bear a cost,” he explains. Weber's research analyzes both the costs and the benefits to a company in making that kind of decision. Other recent work deals with performance pricing and how it allows for more efficient contracting by reducing the expected renegotiation costs of the contract.

Between teaching and research, Weber's free time is limited. What little he does have, he spends with his wife and three young children. He also does a little saltwater fly-fishing — a hobby he picked up a few years ago. “My schedule is pretty full,” says Weber. “But I like it that way.”

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