After Korea: Professor Ted Wallin from Syracuse, New York

There’s a catchy song about train safety that takes me back in time, back to Professor Ted Wallin’s marketing class at Sejong University in Seoul. 

Professor Wallin taught in the Sejong-Syracuse MBA program for more than six years before retiring in 2016. His going-away party was streamed on social media, and that’s how I found out.

“I wasn’t intending to retire then,” he said when we spoke over the phone this past July. “I was staying on in Korea for a few more years, but my elder brother was quite sickly and also he’d lost his wife. And his son was threatening to put him in a nursing home, and I wouldn’t allow it. So I came back to America, but went right to Pennsylvania and stayed with him for about three years until he died.” 

After helping to settle his brother’s estate, Professor Wallin went back to Syracuse and is mostly doing volunteer activities now. Even in retirement he’s remained very active — teaching graduate courses, advising the distribution management program, mentoring students and helping out with the campus ministries at Syracuse University. That’s where he was based for many years and where he returned after his brother’s death. 

He said he was grateful for the time he spent with his brother.

“He was about 13 years older than I,” he said, “and so we had not spent our childhood together because he was so much older. And so God was good. Through that work of fate that brought us together, we spent our last years together, so it was a great blessing. We had a wonderful time together.”

One thing the experience taught him, he said, is that sick people need companionship just as much as they need physical care.

“I’d be finishing up taking care of the dinner dishes and so on,” he recalls, “but he’d be in the other room, saying, ‘Are you almost finished? Are you coming in to be with me?’ and so on, and sometimes you can’t be in two places at once.”

Seeing a loved one decline gradually is always difficult too, he added.

Professor Wallin had spent most of his time away from Syracuse since 1996, so it took some effort to get reestablished. The place has changed, he said, and the people he once worked with are mostly retired or have moved on. Because of the COVID-19 situation at the time of our conversation, people couldn’t have much personal physical contact, another source of stress for him.

“I’d like to spend time mentoring or teaching or caring for the elderly or visiting nursing homes, and you couldn’t do any of those things during the COVID period, and so I’m really looking forward to this fall when things will be much more open.”

Professor Wallin does some work online, mostly mentoring for graduate courses, and also uses Zoom or the telephone to communicate with students and colleagues, but said he missed the human interaction. He asked about the situation here, and I told him Korea was seeing tighter restrictions because of the fourth wave. But, I added, I was luckier than most and I appreciated the chance to work from home.

He acknowledged that there were many benefits to working from home, but said the shift was hard for the service and entertainment industries. Restaurants were having trouble finding enough workers because “a lot of people aren’t eager to get back into action with face-to-face contact.”

But some things were better, he said. “For example, we’re getting more participants in church services than we had when they were in person.” Not many people were attending in-person services, “but many more people tune in on Facebook and online and so on. And so we’re reaching people differently, but in greater numbers, and so there’s a positive thing to it all too.”

Syracuse was planning to go back to full in-person education at the campus this fall. 

“Last semester was at your choice whether you want online or in person, but thank heavens they’re tooling up now for in-person education.”

He likes the personal contact, he said when I asked, and thinks it’s where he can help the most. 

Campus ministry, a longtime commitment

I asked him about his campus ministry activities, which he’s been involved in for many years.

Syracuse University was founded by the Methodist Church, he told me, “but now of course we have campus ministries for all the major faiths in the world. And I work closely with the chapel, which is multifaith and has multifaith services, and with the Lutheran campus ministry, which have its own outreach. And we’ve done quite a bit online this year, with worship and with counseling and with programs, having had to do our fundraising online now, Facebook broadcasts and so on.” It was a new experience for everyone, he said, “but it’s been enriching and good too.” 

Through the campus ministries he meets students from many different majors, not just management. “And so that’s very important,” he said. 

The ministries encompass faiths such as Islam, different Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism. 

“We have the largest Jewish campus ministry in the country,” Professor Wallin said. “And so some even have their own buildings as we do for the Lutheran campus ministry. Others share office space in the campus chapel, which is right in the center of the quad,” an area on campus where concerts and other large gatherings take place. 

Many Syracuse University students undertake service projects or outreach projects in connection with the campus ministries, he said. 

“And so often what they choose is to do mentoring for refugee or inner-city children. And they’ve done a wonderful job with some of those. Many — we have a kind of hub in Syracuse for refugees, particularly from Asia — they settle here in groups. And they have first the task of learning English and then cultural practice and then getting help with their schoolwork. And so having college students volunteer to nurture and help them is a great help.”

He talked about a music education program for children and teenagers, for example. He also said the Lutheran campus ministry had gotten to know many of “what they now don’t call refugees — they call them new Americans.” Many are from countries such as Nepal and Congo, where “women are often very dominant in the family,” he said.

The programs help the women earn money from home and “get more involved in determining their own well-being … for them to learn that they can speak out and take on a cause,” such as banishing lead-based paint in some of the tenement houses in Syracuse, he said. 

Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney of Disney World fame and a cause-oriented filmmaker who made an award-winning film about women in Congo working to resolve ethnic conflicts there, came to the campus for two days to deliver seminars and speeches to get refugee women interested in becoming outspoken for causes in the US.

“So, that’s strengthening their resolve and their participation in this, for them, new form of government,” he said. 

On the changes in Hong Kong

I asked Professor Wallin about his time in Seoul and found out that Sejong University wasn’t his only foreign teaching post. 

“I spent a longer time, nearly 11 years, in Hong Kong,” he said.

He went to Hong Kong to establish a study abroad program for undergraduate students at Syracuse. After developing the program for two years he stayed on to teach at the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where he helped both universities develop distribution and logistics management programs.

“I would have to say Hong Kong was one of my favorite places to live,” he said. “And so I’m undergoing difficult times, just knowing about the changed governmental structure in Hong Kong.”

He said the changes were “coercive and a breach of contract” because “the Chinese promised with the handover of Hong Kong that they wouldn’t completely absorb Hong Kong until 2047, 50 years after the handover, but now they’re jumping it by over 25 years. And also, Hong Kong’s business community depended on the democratic principles of Hong Kong: the rule of law, the judicial system and things of that nature.”

Hong Kong University is the home of a famous statue commemorating the uprisings in Tiananmen Square, he said. “And so we worry about the infringement of academic freedom and religious freedom. The Lutheran Church has a seminary there.”

He also mentioned how the change was affecting business in Hong Kong. “So many people are fleeing Hong Kong or moving their children for education elsewhere, and businesses are moving from Hong Kong, probably either to Taipei or to Singapore. And so it’s making a real dent in the competitiveness of a wonderful city like Hong Kong.”

Memories of Seoul: ‘A delight to be there’

Recalling his time at Sejong, he said, “I liked it very much. I absolutely adored the SSMBA students. They were bright and talented as you so well know, and participative and entertaining, so they were a joy to work with, then. And I enjoy working with local students, because I also got to teach undergraduate courses to Korean students. And just as in Beijing and in Shanghai and Singapore and Hong Kong, where I taught local students, I enjoyed that very much because it gave me a perspective on their worldview, and also a chance to share their perspective on education. And of course I was very lucky in Korea because of the great respect for age,” as an older professor. “I got so much respect from the Korean students that it was a delight to be there. Where of course here in America, older isn’t necessarily better, younger’s better.” 

In Professor Wallin’s case, I said, we all respected him — not because of his age but because of his dedication and the quality of his teaching.

“Well, I — that’s very kind of you to say that, then,” he said, adding that he’d just spent some time sorting out materials for his archives at Syracuse University and realized “how blessed I am by so many supportive students over so many years and it’s brought me such great delight just to look at pictures of individual students or groups of students and their input to my life as well.”

Old correspondence and pictures can be put away, he said, because “my legacy is always in the lives of the students, not in the materials and publications and things of that nature. But that has been a real blessing to me now as I’ve seen so many students mature in their careers. I mean, I get messages practically every week now from students who are retiring. And so just the other day I had an announcement for a 40th wedding anniversary for one of my undergraduate Syracuse students, and that wasn’t even his first marriage. That was his second marriage. … And I remember when he was an 18-year-old, and so the time has slipped by a lot, then. But it’s been a good life … so I appreciate that.” 

He also said he appreciated Korea’s history, culture and customs. 

“I never quite grew accustomed to the patriarchal and hierarchical system of the country,” he said, calling those features more prevalent here than in Hong Kong. “I mean, rank and age and status and family and so on mean so much, just as they do in Britain. I taught in Britain as well. And so that was always hard for me to accept. And so I never quite got used to that.”

He recalled gatherings of students and faculty at Sejong University, such as banquets, where he was expected to sit with other faculty members but insisted on sitting with the students.

“Come and sit with us, you must with us,” his colleagues would say. 

“I said, no, I’m sitting with the students, and that ruffled feathers, but it just wasn’t my perspective that we separate one from another by classes or duties or so on.”

Changes at Sejong: A new partnership

When Professor Wallin was at Sejong University, the school offered one of its MBA programs in partnership with Syracuse University but has since switched partners. “And now they’re affiliated or have been affiliated with Arizona State, but that was largely through online connections and so the students in the MBA program don’t have the chance for the face-to-face, six-week or four-week or two-week session with American faculty. And I think that a lot of the Western-based faculty have left now. And so, probably because none of us did fit so well into the hierarchy of the Korean educational systems.”

It was different in Hong Kong and Singapore, he said, where the universities were based on Western models to start with. “But they were still good people, active researchers,” he said of his Sejong colleagues, adding that they’d done a good job of caring for students. He also praised the quality of the grads’ research. 

I asked if he knew why Sejong had changed partner schools for its MBA program. 

“Yes, I think that Syracuse want more influence over the program and probably was hoping for more take tuition-wise,” he said, pointing out that “American tuition is so high, Korean tuition is relatively low, and so the payoff for Syracuse wasn’t very great after faculty were paid to come there and so on.” 

I asked about a cheating scandal that I remembered during my time there — there were allegations that the school wasn’t taking strong enough action against academic dishonesty.

Professor Wallin said that was probably one of the more minor issues. A bigger one was the challenge of finding Seoul-based professors who could teach in English. “Some of the Korean professors were excellent at their field but weren’t confident handling English instruction, and so it may have been a choice of Korean professors who could fill into the English-language MBA courses.”

We talked about how SSMBA graduates had fared in their careers.

“Quite a few of the students have returned to their home countries or to America,” he said, adding that he’d just done a recommendation for another SSMBA student. “He moved back to America to be with his parents and brought his Korean spouse and children back and so I was just doing a recommendation for him. … And so, we’re all over the world then, now.”

He said he didn’t know if graduates of the program were still having reunions.

“Quite a few of them were with embassies and of course they’ve turned over, gone back home to other countries and so they may not still be in Korea either.”

He said he keeps in touch with many of his past students on social media. “When I think of someone that I haven’t heard from, then I try to track them down a little bit. And now we have enough resources to do it online. At least with American universities, you can’t do it, even at Syracuse, because of privacy rules.”

On supply chains and COVID-19

When I took Professor Wallin’s classes eight or nine years ago, what set him apart was his flexible approach and how he encouraged people to pursue their own interests. In a marketing class, I was allowed to research different ways of promoting veganism. In a supply chain management class, I got permission to look at sourcing practices in the garment industry and how retailers perpetuated the existence of sweatshops. I mentioned that from a consumer perspective, I still hadn’t found a solution to the sweatshop question.

Professor Wallin said supply chains had taken on new significance because of the pandemic.

“Before COVID no one knew the term supply chain, and now everyone knows that term, supply chain.”

He mentioned “the way in which distribution of goods has changed with everyone shopping on Amazon, home delivery and so on. And so it’s become a much more key concept around the social aspect that was your specialty.”

I mentioned that my own shopping habits had changed drastically since I learned to use a popular online store here.

“We’ve all had to do that during COVID,” he said, adding that “some of the regular brick-and-mortar retailers have started to slide now” because they were having a hard time competing with “armchair shopping.”

I mentioned how much more convenient I found online shopping, regardless of the pandemic, and he agreed that it saved time and energy.

“I’m happy also to get it brought to the car or brought to the home because it’s a lot easier.” 

I said I still wondered whether consumers really could affect supply chain practices in positive ways — for example, sourcing decisions in the garment or semiconductor industries.

“Well, there’s always a limit,” he said. “I think one of the new concerns now, of course, is both the use of energy for home delivery of everything. The danger of using drones for delivery. The possible issue of self-driving trucks and so on, which are starting to appear in American roadways now. And particularly the evolution of packaging — when you think of all the packaging that’s wasted, it’s absolutely amazing.” 

He talked about all the waste in each Amazon box. “And so that’s an ethical concern,” he said.

He said he was concerned about the use of energy and resources to bring products directly to customers. “And then some of the ethical issues branch into marketing. I mean, do we need so many varieties of products?” 

There are so many brands on the market that it’s “consumer choice gone wild,” he said, “when you now find 47 different kinds of toothpaste in the store and so on. You think, well, do we really need that?”

On changing economies

Changing trends are affecting older adults and people with disabilities, both in good ways and bad, he said. Telemedicine came up as an example. “Gives them more choices, keeps people from being dragged out to doctor’s appointments, which is so difficult for the infirm. And so yes, I’ve gotten used to those as well. And so, good news and bad news, I mean, in terms of the supply chain or distribution issue.”

We talked about a few of the business ideas I’d considered pursuing since I took his marketing courses. (At the time I wasn’t legally eligible to start a business.) Small online shops and affiliate marketing businesses can be successful, he said, mentioning one of his former Sejong students who’d enjoyed great success as a beauty blogger. She tested all the products she recommended and believed in them, he said.

We talked about how the economy was changing, both in Korea and the US, and how those changes might affect people in the future. Professor Wallin said he was glad that entrepreneurship was taking root in Korea, along with a greater emphasis on creativity and critical thinking.

Oddly enough, he said he remembered me as a good student and “how in class you searched for a perfect chocolate bar.” What I remember, to be honest, is my awkward and less-than-consistent attempts to support ethical sourcing in the chocolate industry. 

But that’s Professor Wallin — always seeing the good in people, always there with a word of encouragement, looking to guide his former students in the right direction and help if he can. 

The featured photo is from Professor Wallin’s LinkedIn profile, used with his permission. As of October class was back in session at Syracuse, but some classes and activities were still virtual. “This last wave has brought back a lot of restrictions, just when we thought they were ending,” Professor Wallin wrote in an email.

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