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Dr. Michael Abebe: A passionate advocate of research-infused business education
Posted: 11/11/2013
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Growing up in a developing country, Dr. Michael Abebe said he saw early on in life the impact of education.

- Dr. Michael Abebe
"I saw what an education does for you, how an education transforms not just your life but your family's life, an entire city's life. I saw that in Africa," said the native of Ethiopia. "When I first started teaching here at UT Pan American, I saw some of the same type of transformation in first-generation students' lives and the area's life. I connected with that."

As an assistant professor of management at The University of Texas-Pan American, Abebe has been making a difference in students' lives since 2008. This year his skill as a teacher garnered him The University of Texas System's 2013 Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards, considered one of the largest and most prestigious in the nation for rewarding faculty performance. Abebe was one of six faculty members from UTPA to receive the award.

"Teaching is a wonderful profession. The award has inspired me to do even more, to be a better teacher and to further research-infused business education," said Abebe, who in 2012 also won his college's Excellence Award in Teaching.

In Ethiopia, Abebe was originally on track to become a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - an equivalent to the U.S.'s State Department - after graduating with a B.A. in business management from Jimma University. However, when he came to the United States to earn his MBA from Eastern Illinois University, Abebe said he was immediately drawn to the freedom to pursue his intellectual curiosity in academia. He later earned his Ph.D. in Organization Studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

He said his attraction to UTPA's Ph.D. program in business administration and his passion for research led him to come to the University, where he was surprised by its students.

"The level of curiosity, the willingness to learn, the sense of humility students have is striking. You don't see a lot of students here who think that they are entitled. You see a lot of hardworking students who want to move their families forward," he said.

Abebe describes his discipline of strategic management simply: why some business organizations outperform others and the role of strategic leadership in shaping the direction of a firm. An active researcher, he has published 13 peer-reviewed journal articles and presented at 14 academic conferences since he's been at UTPA. He said studying leadership and organizations came naturally for him.

"The thing for me is what a difference leadership can make and I am talking about leadership broadly - national leadership, educational leadership, community leadership," said Abebe, whose research interests include leadership issues in strategic change, determinants of successful business turnaround as well as the sociology of entrepreneurship.

In the classroom, Abebe sees the roles of teachers and researchers being closely intertwined and has a teaching philosophy that promotes critical thinking and relevancy of the material being taught.

"I believe students learn best when the course material is presented in a way that draws from their background, experiences and current mental model," he said. "I often require my students to prepare a strategic analysis of locally owned and operated entrepreneurial and mid-sized companies located in the Rio Grande Valley area as opposed to Fortune 500 firms located elsewhere."

In a team project on the San Juan Inn in San Juan, Texas, the students worked with the business an entire semester to examine its history and management, its organizational strengths and weaknesses, its strategic goals, among other factors, to come up with a business strategy and issues to consider in its implementation. At semester's end the team presented their recommended business strategies to the San Juan Inn manager, who also received a copy of their analysis. Similar projects have been done with a number of other Valley companies.

"I believe such service learning opportunities not only help our college achieve its goals of community engagement, but they also enable our students to learn the classroom material in a real and practical way," Abebe said.

He has also incorporated technology into the learning environment. Abebe has successfully used an interactive web-based strategic airline simulation in his classes that allows teams of students to manage a regional commuter airline. The teams compete as they are tracked on their weekly strategic, operational and tactical decisions related to the airline's management.

"This simulation enables students to understand and apply multiple managerial theories to solving real world complex problems," Abebe said.

Beverly Miller, a 2012 master's of accountancy graduate and a former student in Abebe's strategic management class, describes his teaching style as "unparalleled" in captivating the interest of his students. She said she especially appreciated the opportunities Abebe provided to look at real life companies and evaluate strategic decisions in those companies.

"This gave all the students, including myself, the chance to see these otherwise abstract management concepts actually at work in local Rio Grande Valley businesses," Miller wrote in her recommendation of Abebe for the Regents' award.

In her recommendation letter, Abebe's colleague, Assistant Professor of Management Dr. Jennifer Welbourne, said Abebe is able to almost instantly create a comfortable learning environment for students and introduce topics in a way that generates curiosity and excitement among his students. She said as a guest presenter in her undergraduate courses, he consistently leaves the students "spellbound."

"Every time I have observed Dr. Abebe giving a presentation in my class, I am continually inspired to be a better teacher. Furthermore, his enthusiasm for teaching is contagious, in that he inspires all of us within the department to bring our absolute best to the classroom," Welbourne said.

As humble as he describes his students, Abebe profusely acknowledged the support he has received from his department and college. He also described the love he has for his profession.

"I am in awe. It allows me to pursue my passion. The award is great but at the end of the day, I am a teacher. And now that I got this award, how can I use it to be better," he said.

See The University of Texas System's Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards website to view all 63 faculty members from the UT System's nine academic institutions selected to receive this year's award. Learn more about prior UTPA winners of the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards at the Office of Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs website.