Cura Personalis: Michael Unger, Ph.D.

By Courtney Jolley  |  Photo by Cory Donovan

Most people wouldn’t consider being chased by a herd of elephants or contracting malaria—twice—among the high points in their careers.

But they’re not Michael Unger, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of management and international business in the Sellinger School of Business and Management. Unger launched his academic career after retiring from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he spent 25 years working to promote economic development in more than 60 countries.

He joined Loyola as a visiting professor in the spring of 2000, and remains at the University nearly 13 years later—having been named professor of the year by Executive and Fellows MBA students in 2007 and 2010.

In addition to teaching a variety of courses in the undergraduate, Professional’s MBA, MBA Fellows, and Executive MBA programs, Unger has made Loyola one of just seven U.S. universities authorized to offer Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter’s famed Microeconomics of Competitiveness (MOC) course. He spoke with Loyola magazine just after returning from a teaching trip to Kenya and Rwanda.

WHAT FIRST SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

Pure luck! My Ph.D. advisor from Washington University in St. Louis was appointed assistant secretary of the Treasury Department, and I came to D.C. with him. Among other things, I worked on a variety of developing country finance issues. After a few years, I moved to USAID, where I advised countries from Latin America to the former Soviet Union on trade and investment policy, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and financial market reform.

HAVE YOU DEVELOPED A PARTICULAR AFFINITY FOR WORKING IN DEVELOPING NATIONS?

Absolutely. I find working in the developing nations fascinating. For me, working in Europe, Japan, and other industrialized nations is basically an extension of working in the U.S. The excitement’s gone, like a can of Coke that’s been left out all night. It’s lost its fizz. The challenge of working in the developing nations—different cultures, different business practices, different value systems—that’s something special. You have an opportunity to do something and see the difference you’ve made in a way you can’t in England, Germany, or France. You can help identify and break a bottleneck in a business practice. You can write the rules for a stock market—I helped do that in the shared market in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. You have easier access to the higher-ups. You can see progress at a faster pace than you do in industrialized countries. And for me, in Africa in particular, I really like working with the people there.

MOST PEOPLE STILL ASSOCIATE RWANDA WITH THE GENOCIDE THAT TOOK PLACE IN THE MID-1990s. WHAT’S GOING ON THERE NOW IN TERMS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

Rwanda is now one of the safest and least corrupt countries, certainly in Africa, and probably the world. It has some of the best economic development policies. But it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s landlocked. To say economic development is a challenge would be a massive understatement. But it has a huge asset in tourism—it’s one of just two natural habitats in the world for the mountain gorillas featured in Gorillas in the Mist. People flock from all over the world to see them. It’s also a source for top-quality tea and coffee. But working with the government isn’t enough. The government doesn’t create value; only business does. Government provides an enabling environment for development, which is crucial, but what really needs to happen is for all the industries with related interests to collaborate to work past obstacles. Take the gorillas, for instance. That involves the hotel industry, transportation, universities, veterinary institutes, and so on. The country soon realized its outdated airport was a hindrance and is building a new $3 billion one that will serve tourism as well as the export of coffee and tea.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GET INTO ACADEMIC LIFE?

I had always liked the world of ideas. I finished my Ph.D. in Economics and International Business at Penn State while at USAID, and when I retired in 1996, I spent a year at American University as a visiting professor, then a few years consulting. I was in Egypt in 1999 and realized I wanted to teach at a good school with a strong undergraduate program as well as an MBA program. A friend who was the dean at Howard University’s business school let me know about a three-semester visiting position at Loyola. I came in the spring of 2000 and never left. I like the school, what it stands for, my colleagues, and the freedom you get as a professor. I was actually going to retire again this year when I was offered the position as chair, so I’ll be on board for three more years.

WHAT DO YOU WANT STUDENTS—AT ALL LEVELS—TO TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR COURSES?

Three things: Improved strategies for becoming competitive businessmen and women. A greater appreciation and understanding for the global world in which we do business—regardless of whether or not they actually work in an international business. And information that will help them become more enlightened citizens in the world and more enlightened voters. This perspective does matter no matter what business you’re in. If you work in a Baltimore hospital, you need to know that medical tourism is becoming one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. People from the Middle East come to Johns Hopkins for heart surgery—and Americans go to India and Mexico for hip replacements and cosmetic surgery. Run a wine and cheese shop that sells only California wine? Better be careful as the Euro declines. French wine is going to be much cheaper than yours, and you’re going to get killed. A lot of my students also want to know how to have a career like mine. I tell them that I’ve been very fortunate, and never could have planned any of this—but I also believe that good luck comes to those who work hard and are prepared.

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