Executives inject real-world knowledge into classrooms

┬áBETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania — Midway through one of his undergraduate seminars on mergers and acquisitions at Lehigh University’s business school, John R. Chrin reached a topic he knew intimately.

As his students dissected the case study, “Investment Banking in 2008: A Brave New World,” Chrin couldn’t help adding his personal twist to the discussion of Bear Stearns’s collapse.

“I remember sitting there with the finance chief and the CEO, Alan Schwartz,” he said. “They could not open for business on that Monday. That’s why the government was so hopeful for someone to do a deal.”

Last year, Chrin was a senior investment banker at JPMorgan Chase, advising his boss, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive, on the daring takeover of Bear. Today, he has the ear of 25 deal-makers in training in Finance 372, an hourlong course each Thursday that mixes the basics of mergers and acquisitions with war stories from the financial crisis.

“It’s an opportunity to recharge, give back and bring a little bit of what I have learned,” said Chrin, perhaps the only Lehigh professor who bounds into class wearing a bespoke navy blue pinstriped suit.

It is also a lot of work, he said, comparing the class to preparing for a board meeting with 25 directors.

Chrin, Lehigh’s global financial services executive in residence, is one of a handful of top deal-makers who have recently traded the boardroom for the classroom: Gregory Fleming, Merrill Lynch’s former president, is co-teaching a course on the causes of the financial crisis at his alma mater, Yale Law School; Thomas Russo, Lehman Brothers’ former chief legal officer, taught a class on crisis decision-making at Columbia Business School.

Others are accepting academic posts. Edward C. Forst, a senior Goldman Sachs executive, took a top administration job at Harvard for a year before returning to the Wall Street firm. And Frank Yeary, Citigroup’s former global head of mergers and acquisitions, is now a vice chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Meanwhile, business school deans are trying harder to reach out to corporate leaders and alumni to give their students a hand in one of the toughest job markets for Wall Street in years by broadening their network of contacts. Faculty members are relying on practitioners to keep their research current on fast-changing policy topics, like financial regulatory reform, and bring business case studies to life.

Jeffrey Garten, the former dean of the School of Management at Yale, said bringing in more experts from business and government was crucial to helping financial leaders of the future avoid past mistakes. “There is a crying need for more understanding,” he said.

That is one reason Chrin, who graduated from Lehigh with an engineering degree in 1985, came back to campus as a teaching fellow this fall.

In January, the dean of Lehigh’s business school, Paul R. Brown, contacted Chrin and other alumni on Wall Street. He wanted to identify executives willing to come to Lehigh for a semester to discuss the crisis and help students with their job hunt.

“A student can read about it,” Brown said in an interview. “John can bring a historical perspective of being in the trenches.”

Chrin, 46, had been contemplating a midcareer break after advising on several bank mergers last year, including Wells Fargo’s takeover of Wachovia. He committed to teaching at Lehigh for the 2009-10 academic year.

Two days a week, Chrin returns to campus to lead an introductory business course for freshmen and a deal-making seminar for seniors. The seminar draws heavily from his 21 years as an investment banker, where he rose to co-head of mergers and acquisitions in the financial institutions group at J.P. Morgan.

Chrin recently guided his students through some recently announced deals, using Walt Disney’s takeover of Marvel Entertainment as the basis of a discussion on whether to run a sales auction or work with a sole bidder.

When the discussion shifts to events he has lived through, Chrin intersperses concepts like moral hazard with his own financial insights.

“What was the ultimate catalyst?” he asked the class. “It’s Banking 101 — you don’t take long-term assets and fund them with short-term debt.”

It is Chrin’s hope that students will eventually navigate a proxy statement with ease and walk away with a better grasp of investment banking. For one of their final grades, students will have the option of analyzing major issues in the Bear Stearns sale. “If they want to do that one, that’s fine,” he said. “I have a little more experience on that.”

Life inside academia is instructive for Chrin, too. He said his time on campus had made him “way more empathetic to how people can get really angry with the outright levels of pay” on Wall Street. He would not discuss his salary other than to acknowledge that he had taken a substantial pay cut.

Next semester, Chrin said he would also teach a freshman course on business ethics and may assist with faculty research. In the meantime, he has told students that he will be as available to them as he once was to top banking clients. He did not announce regular office hours on the first day of class. Instead, he handed out his phone number.

“I’m a banker, so feel free to call me,” Josefa Palma, one of Chrin’s students, said he told the class. “I’ll always have my cellphone.”