Like all great ideas, Dr.
Lynda Cleveland’s came to her
while she was at the beauty shop waiting to get a perm.
It was 1998,
and Cleveland was facing her first semester as a lecturer in The
University of Texas at Austin’s business school. The
prospect of teaching the management information systems course
to which she had been assigned was exhilarating because she had
wanted, ever since she could remember, to follow in her granddad’s
footsteps and be a professor at the best university in the nation.
The only possible little fly in the ointment was the fact that
she would be teaching 1,125 students. In one semester.
had been a motivational speaker who had presented to large crowds
around the world alongside greats like Zig Ziglar
and the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Cleveland was not daunted
by the prospect of standing in front of a group that size. The
quandary she puzzled over, as the perm solution wafted past her
nose, was how to present the subject matter in a way that left
each of the more than 1,100 students feeling as though he or she
had been part of an intimate, meaningful learning experience.
standing in front of a class, reading ream after ream of tired,
over-processed lecture notes and giving tests was out of
the question. That didn’t fit her vivacious, people-oriented
personality, challenge her intellect or sit well with her conscience.
what a class of 500 or so would look like, she picked up a Texas
Almanac that happened to be part of the beauty shop
reading material and started thumbing through it, noting sizes
of different towns. As she browsed entries in the almanac, she
was struck by the fact that more than 400 Texas cities, at that
time, did not even have 500 residents. And here she was with more
than 1,000 students to teach and manage. That’s when the
fateful leap of imagination occurred. What she had on her hands,
with two classes of about 500 students each, was two cities!
at the beauty shop, the notion of Cleveland AT Texas was
born, and Cleveland was named mayor of that fine city the first
“As I’m sitting under the dryer with this cocktail
of chemicals baking into my head, I’m thinking, I can build
a class around a city,” says Cleveland, with a Texas twang. “We
can break the class down into several small groups, and each group
can represent a business in the town and, as we learn all of these
business concepts, like statistics and information management,
the students can actually apply those things to their work in our
magical, imaginary city. At the end of the semester we can have
a mock trade show, where they practice their communication skills
and get a taste of what business is like in the real world.”
that epiphany six years ago, the Cleveland AT Texas business fair
has gained a kind of mythic status on campus and in the Austin
business community. About 5,000 people visit and participate in
the fair at the end of each semester, including 300 students from
area elementary schools, 400 businesses, faculty members and administrators
from UT as well as other universities, parents and former students
of the class who volunteer their time. Between 30-50 students walk
away from the fair each year with an internship or summer job,
and 30 or 40 of the students’ product ideas, over the years,
have made the leap from class project to real.
Cleveland presides over operations in the magical little
town of Cleveland AT Texas.
The fair’s reach even has extended to East Texas. Because
colorful anecdotes seem to float in Dr. Cleveland’s wake like a
fine mist of hairspray, one is only mildly surprised to discover
that the fair and class have spawned a sister-city relationship
with the East Texas town of Cleveland. Or that Dr. Cleveland’s
ancestors were founders of that town. Or
that the mayor of the “real” Cleveland is honorary mayor
of Cleveland AT Texas and
Dr. Cleveland is honorary mayor of the real city.
Although the actual
fair is a spectacle that, as many participants and visitors put
it, “can’t possibly be described but
has to be lived,” the operations of Cleveland AT Texas prior
to the culmination of the semester are equally amazing.
At the beginning
of each semester, the 500 or so students who take Dr. Cleveland’s
Foundations of Information Systems and Statistics class randomly
are assigned to groups of 5-7. Each of the 70 or
so groups will be a business in the town of Cleveland AT Texas
and will develop a novel product that can be hawked at the business
fair. In keeping with the theme, groups must submit official paperwork
to the Cleveland AT Texas Patent Office for each new product, and
the patent office must determine if the product has a U.S. patent
or is waiting to receive a patent.
Because the course is an introductory
business class in the McCombs School’s Business Foundations
Program (BFP), students from a variety of colleges and schools
take it, including all classifications,
from freshmen to seniors. The BFP gives non-business majors in
good academic standing an opportunity to supplement their undergraduate
curriculum with business fundamentals ranging from marketing to
Although students may not immediately appreciate the virtues
of having English majors as well as math and advertising types
each group, the benefits soon become obvious to Cleveland AT Texas
business fair features 70 booths and draws about 5,000 visitors
and participants each year.
“I was a graphic designer before I came to UT, and I’ve done
the visual design for our product” says Miles Ryan, a junior
in the class this spring whose group has developed, as its product,
a football with a gyroscope inside that makes it throw perfect
spirals every time.
“We have a guy in the group who is studying to be a sports
agent, and he’s absolutely a natural PR person. He talked
to businesses and sponsors for us and contacted representatives
with the Segway
scooter company to see how their scooter is put together and how
it works so that we could incorporate the same technology into
our football. He even got hold of someone from the company that
does all of the leather binding for NFL publications and had them
bind our class document in the same leather and burn our business
logo on the cover. He’s amazing.”
Because the groups
represent businesses, members assume some of the same roles that
one likely would find in a business. A math
major may be the accountant or chief financial officer, while an
engineering major may take over research and design.
“This class is so different from all of my other classes,” says
Cassandra Cuellar, a freshman who hopes to go into corporate law. “You
don’t sit and memorize facts and take tests. We really have
to understand statistics, databases and informational technology
because we’re required to apply all of that knowledge to
our business. Each group has to have at least eight knowledge sponsors,
which are real businesses that we have to visit to find out how
they apply concepts that we’ve learned in class, and we end
up seeing how all of these things we’re learning are used
in the real world. To come up with a make-believe business, you
have to know the business concepts inside and out and be able to
use them correctly. It’s very challenging.”
As a group,
the students tackle a variety of tasks during the semester, the
most demanding being the preparation of an impressive 100+
page document that counts toward their fair grade. They turn it
in shortly before the business fair and it is evidence of the group’s
creativity, their meticulousness, their grasp and application of
key concepts that were covered in class, the extent to which they
have thought out their imaginary businesses and how well they pull
together as a team.
Cleveland studies every word of the 70 or so
two-inch thick documents, and they are evaluated by a panel of
businesspersons and Cleveland’s
graduate teaching assistants. Each document takes about five hours
Like everything else in the sunny town of Cleveland AT Texas,
from the fuzzy dice used to teach probability to the Igloo ice
that serves as a bank and the jail that hands out tickets for ringing
cell phones or sleeping during lectures, the ceremonial turning
in of the documents is just a little bit…different.
students were lined up in the hallway by Cleveland’s
office at 7 a.m. on the day that the document was due, some sleeping,
others admiring their handiwork as they waited for Mayor Cleveland
One business elected to deliver its document to the
mayor and the city’s executive council on a remote-controlled
Hummer, but the driver, suffering from post-document-preparation
could not quite steer the vehicle in the proper direction. One
company with a pet-related business delivered a wiggling, jumping
cage that Cleveland was told to open with caution. Inside was the
monstrous document. Yet another group donned crowns and delivered
their document in royal regalia. One company, whose product is
a clever “electronic receipt” that will eliminate the
clutter of paper receipts, delivered its document in a box bursting
with, of course, paper receipts that exploded onto the floor and
table when the lid was removed.
of the hefty document is a watershed for most groups and Mayor
Cleveland encourages her city’s residents
to relax, enjoy the camaraderie, and have fun building their booth,
it’s crunch time as far as some groups are concerned.
group’s storefront must reflect the business product
that it has created.
a mere two weeks before the fair kicks off, and one group is huddled
around a table at Amy’s Ice Cream at 7 p.m.,
eating Mexican Vanilla with crushed Kit Kat bars and trying to
figure out how to knock the socks off of the competition. Mayor
Cleveland is in tow, along with a graduate teaching assistant,
or, as the teaching assistants are known in Cleveland AT Texas,
an executive council member.
By semester’s close, Cleveland
will have attended at least 70 group meetings with teaching assistants
Shelly Gehrke and Caroline
Sullivan at locations all over Austin and at every time of day,
from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. If a group requests a meeting with the mayor,
barring natural disaster or catastrophic illness, she is present.
“These kids are the world to me,” says Cleveland. “And
watching their faces at the fair, seeing the pride and excitement,
is worth everything. It’s certainly worth the hundreds of
e-mails from them that I get a day with all sorts of questions
and worth the phone calls at all hours and the times that I’ve
been summoned to Brackenridge Hospital by someone there who says
they have an injured kid who’s asking for ‘the mayor,’ worth
the bowls of soup I’ve delivered. I’ve taught 12,000
kids here at UT since I came on board six years ago, and I’ve
loved every minute of it.”
Fortunately for the anxious group
at Amy’s, high butterfat
ice cream seems to be a natural brain stimulant, and the group,
by 10 p.m., has sketched out a concept that has the members excited
and the mayor relieved. She, after all, has another group meeting
to attend that night.
With ideas for their booths mapped out on
paper, groups will construct “storefronts” that
can be broken down and taken into the Texas Union ballroom the
day before the fair begins. The booths must be eye-catching while
at the same time remaining within the guidelines of the Union.
crowded, lively fair has been described as “a circus
in a shoebox.”
a semester, each group may spend only $150, which leaves them with
the responsibility of approaching business sponsors for
items such as PVC piping to build the booth’s frame or pens
and caps to give away to visitors. Their clothing and demeanor
must match the business that they are running, so groups may also
have to solicit items such as aprons, jackets, animal costumes,
stethoscopes or cowboy boots.
“We have so many businesses that are generous and help these
kids every year,” says Cleveland. “Local ones like
Toy Joy and Breed Hardware always come through for us as well as
ones like Storage USA, Home Depot, Kinko’s and Lowe’s,
for example. Enterprise Car Rental is the fair’s title sponsor
this year, which is great, because, in addition to offering financial
support, Enterprise representatives come right before the fair
to sit down with the students and walk them through interviews,
giving them pointers on how they can improve their interview skills.”
the day before the fair, after the students have set up their booths,
the ballroom is locked at 6:30 p.m. and a security guard
is put in place to guard the “businesses.” Mayor Cleveland
spends the night walking from booth to booth with a clipboard,
taking notes, watching each Powerpoint presentation and video and
reading all of the promotional materials.
“At this time of semester, Dr. Cleveland is the hardest-working
woman on campus,” says Dawn Knox, an assistant director at
the Texas Union and the individual who works with Cleveland’s
class to set up the fair. “Starting the day before the fair,
at 7 a.m., she’s at the Union until 6 a.m. the following
morning. She watches to make sure the students are following the
rules, helps them set up and spends the whole night grading their
booths. Wednesday morning she leaves for about two hours, changes
clothes and then is back for the grand opening of the fair. That
day of the fair she stays until about 10 p.m. The amount of work
and energy it takes to do this rather than just give lectures and
grade tests, which is how she could choose to conduct the class,
Also unbelievable is the number and variety
of participants who come together to make each business fair memorable.
semester the fair is opened by a special guest, with past “dignitaries” including
everyone from the actual mayor of Cleveland, Texas, to the provost.
This year’s honored guest will be a soldier home from Iraq.
cover behind-the-scenes operations and keep the fair running smoothly,
Cleveland enlists 6-8 student volunteers, dubbed Cleveland
City Council members, who already have taken the class and participated
in a past fair. Also present is a bodyguard, usually a former student,
who is familiar with the layout of the booths. He escorts Cleveland
through the pressing throngs, ensuring that she visits all 70 booths
in a mere four hours while also having time to speak to the news
media, meet parents who sometimes have traveled from several states
away to attend the event and congratulate students.
“As Julie Delaney, one of my teaching assistants, describes
it, the ballroom is ‘a circus in a shoebox’ for those
few hours of the fair,” says Cleveland. “A nine-foot-tall
papier-mâché glue bottle from one booth might scamper
up and accost me and want me to stop, or a guy in a gorilla costume
booth may try to grab me, and I have to cover a lot of ground if
I’m going to get to visit all of the booths. It’s a
touchy-feely day, though, and I’ve got to say, I sure do
love all of the hugs I get from hundreds of sweaty, excited entrepreneurs.”
costumes and booth designs woo judges and visitors.
the fair is a spectacle that can be appreciated by both young and
old, each semester 300 students from Hill Country Middle
School in Eanes and Windemere Elementary in Pflugerville visit
and serve as junior judges, visiting booths and evaluating them
according to criteria that Cleveland has developed. While at the
fair, they receive a campus tour from Cleveland’s students
and are treated to lunch. Last semester the students were taken
to the LBJ School of Public Affairs to view a miniature model of
the White House, which was on exhibit at the time. Prior to the
fair, Cleveland visits the schools and explains to the young students
what will be happening at the fair, describing the work that her
students have done to create imaginary businesses and products.
“The students think it’s very special to have ‘a
real professor’ come to class, and this actually ties in
extremely well with what we’re covering,” says Vicky
Abney, who teaches 6th grade computer education at Hill Country. “We
talk about how important a professional image and your conduct
are in the real world. We use the computer to put together resumes
and business letters, and we spend a lot of time talking about
jobs. By the time my students get to the fair, they understand
what it’s going to be like to enter a world that’s
not home and not school. And Dr. Cleveland does such a terrific
job of enthusiastically welcoming them and showing them how appreciated
their presence is.”
In addition to junior judges, businesspersons,
faculty members and former students of the class attend the fair
to evaluate the
booths and give Cleveland feedback.
“I’ve been ‘promoted’ this year,” says Dr.
Michael Brandl, a lecturer in the Department of Finance. “I’ll
be responsible for judging the cream of the crop, the top echelon
of booths that make it to the final stretch, and I’m really
a very brutal judge. I don’t put up with any flak. I may
pick up their document, let it flop open and start quizzing them
about concepts on whatever page is showing. I ask very technical
statistical questions, and I look carefully for flaws in their
answers. I handle them just exactly the way I handle my MBAs.
addition to teaching the students about business, the fair
is a way to make each and every one of them feel special,”
“After doing that, I then go over with them what I was looking
for in the way of an answer. Although I’m deliberately tough
on them, I have to say that I’ve been very, very impressed
with the work these students have produced over the past six years.
These kids, after all, are not business majors, but in the course
of one semester in Dr. Cleveland’s class they start to develop
this intuitive business feel and sense, and you can see it in the
way they conduct themselves at the fair.”
Despite the crusty
judges, the costumes that itch in the heat of a packed room and
the lack of sleep, most students find that 2
p.m. rolls around all too soon and suddenly it’s all over.
The peppermints and suckers have been handed out to restless children,
roll after roll of duct tape has kept a swaying booth from collapsing,
the judges have finally announced the lucky fair winner and tearful
parents have congratulated their future Michael Dell on a job well-done.
What took a day to assemble is dismantled in a little over an
hour, and another year’s fair is a memory for students to recall
with awe and boast about to friends.
“I like to do things a little bit differently,” says Cleveland. “I
introduce my lesson on experimental design with an egg race in
class, and we learn about standard deviation with teddy bears.
I know that I don’t have to have a huge business fair to
teach the students, but you know what, I think they absorb more
this way, and most important, they feel special, like a unique
individual rather than a number. Besides…it’s fun!”
Photos of Dr. Cleveland: Marsha
Photos of Cleveland AT Texas business fair: Caroline