Retired Professor Michael Popowits Reflects on His 35-Year Career with UIC Business
Retired Professor Michael Popowits Reflects on His 35-Year Career with UIC Business Heading link
Well known around UIC Business for his stellar teaching abilities and for co-founding the revered iLEAD Professional Development Program (PDP) is Accounting Professor Michael Popowits. iLEAD PDP is a series of courses for first-year, second-year, third-year, transfer and graduate students that employ improvisational theatre and experiential learning activities.
Professor Popowits joined the college in the late 80’s in the Accounting department and eventually went on to pursue various roles in improvisational theatre. His expertise in tax accounting helped him land features on NBC and Fox News. He also won the Educator of the Year Award from the Illinois CPA Society in 2020.
Professor Popowits is recently retired, having done so in the summer of 2022. He shared his reflections on a 35-year career at UIC Business and how being involved in improv theatre changed his life and the lives of those he instructed.
Retired Professor Michael Popowits Reflects on His 35-Year Career with UIC Business Heading link
When did you begin your career with UIC Business?
In the 1987-88 academic year, I started in the Accounting Department as an adjunct and then I became full time in the fall of ‘88. So, 35 years ago just about.
When was the iLEAD PDP program established?
Officially, we began in 2013. Dean Mikhail arrived in 2012 and took that first year to organize the new programs that he wanted to create. I was already teaching an MBA course based upon improvisational theater and he asked me to expand it into a program. We worked on it in ‘12 and launched it in the fall of ‘13.
Describe your entry into the world of theatre. How did it begin?
I had no intention of getting into theater. I was working for a public accounting firm and was a shy guy trying to deal with the fact that business is much more social than I thought it was going to be. A friend of mine from grade school pushed me into it. He handed me a form and said you’ve got to go to this really cool school. I tried everything I could to avoid it. I waited too long to call them up hoping they would say there’s no space and I could say, “Hey, I tried.” Then, I drove around the block four times sweating through my shirt trying to figure out how to escape it, but luckily, none of that happened. And everything changed the moment I walked in the door. And so, from that first class on I was involved in improv, which meant taking classes and then slowly getting into performance.
Improv is a kind of a weird world you know? It is what you make it. But I got into the wonderful and growing world of improv in Chicago. Sometimes I was more involved, sometimes I was less involved. I performed in children’s shows in Second City. I went to the Second City Training Center. And then I got away from it for a while, but I always wanted to learn and figure out how to take this training, which is so good for communication, and give it to people. To go into theater for a couple of years. Since 2000, I’ve been on the faculty at Second City. I’ve been on the faculty for 20 years teaching. I’m not performing anymore, haven’t done it actually for years. But at Second City, I’ve been a teacher and have directed student ensembles.
What productions have you been a part of? Will you be involved in upcoming productions?
I’ve been mostly in small reviews, and it’s really kind of just local stuff around town. I decided I didn’t really want to try to go for theater big time and spend a lot of time at it. It also wouldn’t have worked with the rest of my career. I actually quit my business job for two years to really get into theater. Everybody thought it was really crazy to do that. And I guess it was, but it was like now or never let’s find out. After about two and a half years, two years, I found that I wanted this to be a really strong hobby, but I don’t want to try to do this professionally. It’s just too much pressure and too many other things I want to do.
So no, I was just in and out of groups forever. Performing in smoky bars at midnight, you know, with my latest group, there were a lot of times it was just doing improv for other improvisers and I really had no aspirations of trying to be you know, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, or Keegan Michael Key. I’ve met all of those people or knew them at various points, but they were doing their thing and I wanted to stay in business.
I am familiar with how you fell in love with improv, but can you describe the defining moment that gave you the idea to establish the iLEAD PDP program? In other words, what made you go, “Without a doubt, UIC Business students need this?”
I guess it started with my first class because I realized that improv was kind of the key to the universe. It was all the things that I wanted to learn but I didn’t know how to learn. You know, if you want to study accounting or finance or IT it’s not easy, but there are books you can study and learn from. But if you want confidence, if you want to feel like you are adequate to your life, if you want to be seen and be okay with that, if you want to speak in public, if you want to work on creative teams, if you want to feel secure, if you want to help other people feel secure and happy, if you want to be an effective communicator, you know, how do you get there? I was teaching accounting at UIC and was very happy with that. But I had the side gig. And I just started growing and growing. I would volunteer to do seminars for groups, then they started inviting me back and paid me for it. Then, they started asking me to coach people individually. So, it was very organic. I never went to university for any of this stuff. I just began to figure it out. How do we adapt this stuff?
And so, after it worked once I was on a plane to Taiwan to go coach all the leaders of a large semiconductor company and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ve arrived.” And that’s when I went to the then head of the MBA program. And I said, I’ve got an idea for a little eight-week course. So, we created a course in the fall of 2008 called Improvisation and Leadership. It was very popular. People were beating down the door to get in. I guess it was the title or something. And I found out very quickly I couldn’t let 25 or 30 people in. It had to be 20 or less. Because anything over 20, your cohesive group starts to break up into subgroups and you can’t have an experiential class where everybody can participate and listen.
Your main teaching objective has been described as, “creating a safe container for people to experiment.” Describe what you and the iLEAD PDP team do to ensure that students have a safe space to practice improv.
That’s a great question. First, we close the door. We have a private space. Secondly, we play a lot of improv warm up games, in which the only way they can work is through cooperation. So, people get the hint real fast that this is not competitive. This is not you know, one upmanship. And then we talk about what it really takes to coordinate what you’re doing with somebody else closely. And what we’re trying to create is called the ensemble. The sense of we’re in this together. Everybody’s got your back. You know, I’m here to support everybody. Everybody’s here to support me, no matter what happens. We commit to it 100% and then we sit back and we kind of deconstruct it and analyze at the end to see how well it worked and what we can do better next time. We’re in this to the end. You say no matter what happens, support it. If somebody jumps out with a half an idea, you get in there and you extend that idea.
We create that feeling from the very beginning. I mean, how can it not be safe if everybody’s got your back? That’s the most wonderful place in the world. I ask people have you ever been on a great team? I do this with MBAs. I do this with my clients. It’s like, the best experience in life to have that warmth, that juice that feels like flying when everybody’s working together. We can create that intentionally. And so, when you learn the habits, it makes it safe for everybody then to go farther than they ever have before.
In what way(s) have you seen the iLEAD PDP program impact students’ careers or overall quality of life?
We’ve received endless emails and feedback constantly. As a matter of fact, there is a final project in the classes where I would let students choose what they want to do. Many chose to go on an interview or an informational interview or attend a networking event. Or something I say, is to choose something that scares you a little bit. Something that’s at the edge of your ability. And the stories that come back are just fabulous. Some students got jobs because of this project. We’ve received constant emails all the time saying, “I just had an interview and landed the job. I couldn’t have done it without this program.” Or, “I just got promoted, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it without those classes.” We received constant feedback from students while they were a part of the class and even years later, so we know it works.
I’m sure that a common question you’ve received may be, “How does it feel to retire?” Instead, I’d like to ask, “What are you leaving UIC Business with?”
With a lot of gratitude, actually. I gotta say, that’s a really interesting question. UIC was the arena for me to be endlessly creative. I created this accounting information systems class, fraud examination classes, the whole PDP program – obviously with help. But I don’t know anybody that’s had the creative opportunities to develop classes and programs that I got at Second City and I’m eternally grateful for that. I take a lot of wonderful collegiality, wonderful friends and colleagues and I hope to be able to stay in touch with some of them. I sleep well at night, because I’ve had a really great career and not everybody gets to have a great career.
Will you continue to work with improvisational theatre groups or Second City Theatre after retiring from UIC Business?
Yes, I will still do my theater-based coaching. I will probably do teaching to some extent. I’ll see over the next year. I don’t have definite plans, but I will continue in some capacity.
About your retirement, the iLEAD PDP program, or anything else, what sentiments (or parting words) would you like to leave with the iLEAD PDP team, students and alumni?
Ensemble. You know, I’ve been so imprinted by improv and that feeling of stepping into a group and very quickly going from stranger to beloved teammates, companions, and colleagues, is a feeling like no other and I would hope that everybody’s experience of working at UIC or attending UIC is a feeling of being in a wonderful ensemble, because I just don’t know any greater way to be with people.
Staff and Alumni Celebrate Professor Popowits Heading link
“A Buddhist Monk, A Servant Leader, and Yoda all walk into a bar….NO WAIT! – That’s just one person, the GREAT MICHAEL POPOWITS! To say that Michael Popowits was the greatest boss I ever had would be an understatement. He has the wisdom of Yoda trapped in the body of a basketball player. He is a true servant leader. He leads by putting all of us and UIC before himself. He gives the best advice. The amount of personal and professional growth I’ve had in the last 6 years is solely because he believed in me… even more than I believed in myself. I love him, I cannot stop crying. He will be missed.”
- Kimmie Walker, Lecturer, iLEAD Professional Development Program
“Michael Popowits has positively impacted thousands of lives with the work that he’s done at UIC’s College of Business, both as an accounting professor and as the Director of the Student Professional Development Program. In the case of the latter, he has created a program that is unique in the world as far as I know – a program where essentially all undergraduate students at our business school – and many graduate students as well – get the benefit of improvisational training to help them develop important business skills such as collaboration and public speaking. I am fortunate to be part of what Michael has created at UIC.”
- Ranjit Souri, Lecturer and Director, iLEAD Professional Development Program
“True story: I was walking across campus once with a UIC colleague from another unit. When I told this colleague that I worked with Michael Popowits, he asked, ‘Is he (Popowits) really all that they say he is?’ I looked at him and said, ‘He is.’ It has been an absolute privilege to work with Popowits. His dedication to his students, staff, colleagues, and to his craft was remarkable to witness and experience. He leaves a formidable legacy that we can build on for future UIC Business students. We will miss him so much and wish him the very best.”
- Cordelia Callaway, Assistant Director of Student Professional Development, iLEAD Professional Development Program
“There is always an educator that makes the biggest impact on you, and for many, that was Professor Popowits. He always believed in his students and was a dedicated professor. Through the classes he created, students were able to learn how to successfully network, how to communicate effectively, and how to use different software comfortably.”
- Juanita Vargas, Accounting ’19, ’20
“Professor Popowits genuinely changed my perspective on social interactions and showed me the extreme value of being able to adapt my innate introvert personality in social and professional settings.”
- Elmer Duran, Finance ’17
“Professor Popowits’ passion for teaching accounting systems and presentation skills made his course engaging, innovative, and applicable to my accounting career. UIC is a large university, but I never felt like just a number; Professor Popowits was personable and took a sincere interest in the success of his students. I’m appreciative of Professor Popowits’ time and efforts. I hope he enjoys his retirement.”
- Kerry Lisman, Accounting ’09, ’10