One of the first things people notice about Accounting Professor Mo Hussein is his warm personality. The second, is that he enjoys a little mischief.
“I once told students that my grandfather was a witch doctor,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “And some of them believed it!”
Hussein has spent his 38-year career at UConn, where he has taught thousands of students and helped to build the accounting department’s reputation as among the best in the nation. He also served as accounting department head from 1989-90 and from 2003-15, and as interim dean of the School of Business from 2006-07.
But when he arrived at UConn in 1978, Hussein, a native of Sudan, had no plans to stay long term. He figured he’d get a little experience and then move back home.
“I was the first black faculty member in the School of Business and I never felt out of place. My colleagues in accounting and in the School of Business were all very friendly. They embraced me and my family,” he recalled. “I have the ‘double-whammy’ of being a minority and an immigrant. I thought people might be reluctant to befriend me, but they were all very welcoming and extremely nice.”
Working as a professor is the best job in the world, Hussein said, noting that the student transition from lost freshman to business executive takes place at warp speed.
“I’ve had some juniors that I’ve had to tie ties for because they didn’t know how to do it,” he said with a chuckle. “Then, a couple years later they come back to visit, and they’re successful professionals.”
Hussein began teaching at UConn after having passed up a job at Holy Cross, one that paid substantially more. “I made the right choice,” he says now. But he knew he had to win the trust of his new students, so he started asking them about their baseball allegiances, and immediately they accepted the new educator.
“In the 1970s the Business School was more of a regional school,” he said. “When I came here, there was more emphasis on teaching. I taught six courses a year. We had no Ph.D. program. It was a high-quality, regional, state school, but the building was pitiful.”
The former School of Business building at 368 Fairfield Road had no air conditioning. The heating was so old that the temperature was 100 degrees on one side of the building and bitterly cold on the other side. “You couldn’t adjust the temperature, so you either had to wear a winter coat or open the windows, depending on what room you were in,” he said.
The support for research was very limited, and if professors wanted to attend more than one conference a year, they had to pay their own way. But it was the quality of the students that made working at UConn a joy, he said.
“We always had outstanding students,” Hussein said. “One of the reasons we got really great students was because Connecticut’s private colleges—the Yales and Wesleyans—didn’t have an undergraduate business program, so we got the best and brightest.”
Meanwhile, the School was able to attract top faculty who loved the location, beautiful countryside, safe neighborhoods and great proximity to New York and Boston. “They could go to the beaches and the ski slopes or go to the opera in New York City and sleep in their own bed that night,” he said. “We attracted people who were excellent—and had very big ambitions for the School of Business.”
Hussein credits Dean Ronald Patten for moving the School to a new level. He developed the Ph.D. program that enabled the School of Business to attract faculty who were research-oriented. Patten also interacted with alumni, inviting them to campus frequently. The University and the School of Business started supporting diversity among students, which attracted more employers and employers’ support, he said.
“The School was fortunate because the new young faculty fit well with the senior faculty,” he said. “Everyone seemed to have a good working relationship.”
Today the School of Business has one of the top accounting programs in the country and is a ‘select school’ for all of the prominent accounting firms.
“They like our students and hire them, and come back for more,” Hussein said. Today, two-thirds of the students have internships either in public accounting, corporate accounting or state government, he said. They have good interactions with practicing accountants and understand what will be expected of them in the workplace. They are leaving the university with leadership experience and often civic and community work, like preparing tax returns for low-income people, international students and visiting scholars.
The faculty has expanded to include research-driven professors as well as very senior retired partners of accounting firms, financial vice presidents and others who offer real-world experience. “The two work well together and it enriches the teaching,” he said.
Which circles back to why Hussein thinks being a professor is the best job.
“At graduation, I was standing with a student. I looked up in the stands and her whole family, including her father, who was my former student, was waving to me,” he said. “Those relationships are special and never end.”
Many of his students have kept in touch, Hussein said. “Now I have their kids. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing, ‘My mother, or my father, said hello!'”
A renowned advice-giver, Hussein said he learned that from other, more senior faculty. “They took me under their wing and gave me advice. They were very supportive and very protective. I learned from them. They are wonderful people,” he said. “I was given so much. I feel an obligation, a delightful obligation, to give back.”
Hussein, who also lives in Storrs, said he considers everyone at the University part of his family. “If I can help them, great. I always accept help, as well. It is more important than giving it. It shows you can’t do it all yourself. You have to accept the kindness of others.”
Among the many colleagues he has befriended are now-retired accounting professor Richard “Dick” Kochanek and business school Associate Dean Larry Gramling, also an accounting professor, with whom he has maintained a three-decade long friendship.
As the accounting department head, Hussein was fair, supportive, a good listener and sought to understand all sides of an issue before making a decision, Kochanek said.
“He’s done a great job for the department, the school, the students, faculty and administrators,” Kochanek said. “He’s totally kind to everyone he meets. He’s a sensitive, caring person, who is really invested in other people’s success, well-being and welfare. In life, you run across a lot of people who talk a great game, but in Mo’s case, he delivers more than you’d expect.”
Hussein said he thinks the future of the School, and the University, is bright.
“I think it gets better and better. The quality of our students is impressive. They are so poised from day one,” he said. “Our new faculty hires have outstanding credentials, but just as importantly, they are nice. We won’t hire anyone who is not a nice human being.”
“I feel so fortunate to have come to UConn,” he said. “It is a blessing to witness and be part of the extraordinary growth and recognition of UConn as a leading University.”