Dr. Bill Qualls was there from the beginning. As one of the attendees of the inaugural PhD Project conference, he was instrumental in helping the organization build its community, find its voice and spread its mission.
He recalls getting his invitation to that first conference. “I was asked to be part of a group that would develop a plan to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations in business PhD programs. Because this was something I was actively trying to do on my own, although not in a formal way – I said yes.”
Dubbed one of The PhD Project’s “Godfathers”, Dr. Qualls was the first African American tenured professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Along with earlier stops at the MIT-Sloan School of Management (with tenure) and the University of Michigan, he connected with students globally through visiting professorships at the Helsinki School of Economics, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Auckland University in New Zealand, and the Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Chile.
It’s little wonder he was called a “living legend” during his induction into The PhD Project Hall of Fame in 2015.
Blazing a Trail
Spend a little time with Dr. Qualls, and it’s not difficult to see why The PhD Project regards him as a trailblazer.
He helped lay the foundation for The PhD Project’s marketing discipline.
PhD Project Founding Partner KPMG had deep expertise in the world of accounting, so launching that discipline was second nature. Fostering a strong marketing cohort, however, required outside expertise and support from people like Dr. Qualls.
“In the beginning, we had the resources to recruit prospective students, but we needed to build resources to maintain students and programs,” he said. “We were asking people to leave behind attractive, well-paying careers to go back to school, but we didn’t yet have the scholarships and other resources in place to support them. We had to find a way of working around the challenges to develop a benefit proposition that students would recognize whether they were coming straight from school or leaving careers. That benefit was, and still is today, making an impact on others. It’s not something you can achieve in every career.”
He’s served as a mentor and role model to countless students and fellow PhD Project members.
Throughout his time with The PhD Project, Dr. Qualls has built a reputation as a true mentor. His relationship with PhD Project member Dr. José Rosa is a prime example. “I was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and José was one of the first doctoral students I had as a research assistant. Over the years, he has evolved from being my PhD student to being a lifelong friend. We’ve done research together. We’ve talked about problems together. I have gotten him involved in activities like teaching abroad and research projects – opening doors for him that might have otherwise been closed to him.”
He’s created a new path for PhDs from underrepresented backgrounds.
Dr. Qualls doesn’t think of himself as a trailblazer in the traditional sense. “If you define a trailblazer as someone who along the way has been able to create a new path for other people, then I would accept the moniker of being a trailblazer,” he said. “I would often invite assistant professors at other schools to spend time at my university to give them time to develop a stronger research package for their portfolios. And I’m constantly talking to students who are intellectually curious about the rewards of achieving a PhD, no matter their age. And so, it’s those types of things that I think define me as a trailblazer.”
Ultimately, Dr. Qualls says, “It’s not your individual accomplishment that will provide you with the legacy, but it’s the accomplishment of the children you develop. And students are like my children. Some keep in touch regularly while others reach out after 10 years to thank me for something I taught in a class or share a career milestone. That type of reward might not be quantified in any way – but it’s very impactful personally.”
Never Give Up