Her alarm clock each morning was a 6 a.m. cannon fire. Parachutes decorated the sky as she walked across campus. At the beginning of every class, her students would spring from their desks to stand at attention.
During her recent six-month appointment as visiting assistant professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, Altman was embedded in an entirely different world of academia. Along the way, she gained a better understanding of the veterans, reservists, active-duty military students and ROTC cadets enrolled at UMass Lowell.
“I never served in the military, but I have a world of respect for people who’ve served,” says Altman, who taught four sections of human resources management to 67 cadets at West Point last semester. “This was a great way for me to better understand the scope and scale of what they do, and also to give back in some way.”
Altman was invited to West Point by Col. Everett Spain, head of the academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. They met in 2011 as doctorate of business administration students at Harvard Business School.
“Col. Spain has served the country bravely and courageously for decades,” Altman says. “So for him to say, ‘I want you to come teach in my department for a semester,’ I didn’t feel like ‘No, I’m busy’ was a good answer.”
“Dean Richtermeyer was very generous in allowing me to take a leave,” says Altman, who moved to the historic West Point campus in New York’s Hudson River Valley late last summer. “I wanted to do it, and I became a better faculty member by doing it.”
Unlike the case-based teaching method she was accustomed to, Altman discovered that West Point uses the Thayer method. Similar to the flipped classroom
model used by some faculty at UML, the Thayer method requires students to study material prior to class. Learning is then reinforced in the classroom, with students often teaching each other on chalkboards around the room.
“It’s a very engaged, active style of learning,” says Altman, who is now “much more inclined” to use it with her students.
Altman, whose current research focuses on platform-based businesses and ecosystems, says her stint at West Point could also lead to future research collaboration.
“They have amazing data. I think we could do some interesting work,” says Altman, who can see building on UML’s existing collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory through the HEROES
Thanks to her background in mechanical engineering, Altman found it easy to relate to West Point’s disciplined and focused ways. But having students call her “ma’am” took some getting used to. So did all the military acronyms.
On one HR management exam, Altman asked why the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is so important. Many of the cadets knew ADA to be “air defense artillery,” which led to some amusing answers.
“One very clever cadet said, ‘It’s important because when enemy planes fly overhead, the ADA will intercept them and protect all the employees,’” Altman recalls with a smile. “He got partial credit.”
In a letter to Chancellor Jacquie Moloney
thanking the university for enabling Altman’s visiting professorship, Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb, the dean of West Point, said it opens the door for continued collaboration on future research projects.
“Liz deeply contributed to our mission of developing leaders of character for our nation,” Jebb wrote. “We are excited to maintain our relationship with Liz and hope this will support and enhance the relationship between UMass Lowell, West Point and other U.S. Army institutions.”
For her part, Altman says she felt like she won over an army of new UMass Lowell supporters.
“We now have a community of West Point cadets and faculty members who all know about UMass Lowell and who respect UMass Lowell,” Altman says. “Even if the cadets don’t come here for grad school, they will go serve in the Army and counsel their people about where to go to school afterwards. It’s great that we now have these ambassadors for the university.”