Blind Business Professor Sees No Boundaries in Classroom

Professor Smith (forefront) with guest lecturer, Paul Steadman, president of the Steadman Agency

Like most professors at the College of Charleston, Peter Smith arrives in his classroom each week, smartly dressed and prepared for the day’s lesson and dialogue with students. He sets up his laptop, and often introduces his students to one of the business community’s head honchos as a guest speaker.

Obviously, he is a poised, effective professor. What is not so apparent is that Professor Smith is blind.

Smith, an economics and finance professor in the School of Business at the College of Charleston, began developing retinitis pigmentosa, a type of progressive retinal degeneration, as a young adult. His disability has hardly prevented him from pursuing his passion for teaching.

“Because I lost my eyesight slowly,” Smith said, “I slipped into it, and I was able to keep doing what I love to do.”

Smith’s home office in Charleston, S.C., where he works as a trust administrator for John Hancock Financial Services by day, houses cutting-edge assistive technology and speakers that aid him in his everyday tasks. The walls are lined with plaques from the Harvard Business School, and trophies and medals are displayed on shelves, testaments of his marathon and cycling accomplishments.

The professor, who was met with a standing ovation as he accepted his Masters degree in international relations at Harvard University, said his disability has been a minor setback. “I like to use the analogy of a boulder in a stream,” Smith said. “The water will find its way around the obstacle.”

Smith teaches a risk management and insurance class twice a week. For his students, his blindness is irrelevant.

“Professor Smith’s class is incredible. It seems like he’s in his twentieth year of teaching,” said senior Chris Haley, accounting major at the College of Charleston. “It’s probably my favorite class I’ve ever taken here.”

Smith pours his industry knowledge into the classrooms, granting his students an education that no textbook could ever teach.

“We are fortunate to have Peter as a member of our faculty who shares his risk management expertise with his students,” says Alan T. Shao, Ph.D. and Dean of the School of Business.  “Students also learn a valuable life lesson that he exhibits everyday by overcoming obstacles to perform at a very competitive level, despite any physical limitations.”

This particular day, guest lecturer Paul Steadman, president of the Steadman Group, spoke to the class about the insurance industry in South Carolina.  Two weeks ago, Mike Veeck, the owner of the Charleston RiverDogs took the podium. “Professor Smith is one of the most connected people I know,” Haley said. “From the people who write insurance policies to the people who buy them, he brings applied learning to the classroom.”

Smith’s personal dedication inspires students to succeed. “Because of how much he’s achieved, we are willing to step up,” Haley said. “He’s motivating, passionate.”

The students help him set up his laptop at the beginning of class, which allows him to listen to the lecture he has prepared for the day, via ear buds. The robotic voice that relays the text to him is fast and nearly incomprehensible to the untrained ear, but to him, it is a language in itself.

“I’m amazed at what he can do with technology. He must have a lot of patience,” Haley said.

His students aren’t surprised to see him use the types of visual aids and media examples that so many faculty incorporate into their lectures. “I may not pull out a huge chart or diagram, but I still like to show videos and use props that are relevant to the discussion,” Smith said.

Of course, Smith gets by with a little help from his friends.

Grading papers is easy – Smith has his students send them electronically in text format. “I get to kick back and have them read to me,” Smith said. As for grading tests and other assignments, he requires some assistance.

Smith’s fiancée, Janet, and others read the essay portion of the tests aloud to Smith, and he grades accordingly. As for the rest of the test, “I quickly realized that multiple choice is a lot easier to grade than fill-in-the-blank questions,” Smith said.

Being blind has not created a barrier for the 51-year-old professor, trust administrator, marathon-runner and tandem bike cyclist. “Life is risk, and I have dealt with many of my own,” Smith said. “However, the opportunities outweigh the risks, and I’m grateful that the College of Charleston has given me the chance to share that with my students.”

About the School of Business

College of Charleston’s School of Business offers five undergraduate programs, a master’s in accountancy and an honors program. Approximately 1650 undergraduate and graduate students attend from as far away as China, Germany and Brazil. The faculty has research expertise in areas such as financial investment, bankruptcy, global logistics, political economics, business intelligence, hospitality and tourism and sustainable business practices. Visit sb.cofc.edu to learn more.

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