There’s one of a kind and then there’s C.J. Skender.
The accounting professor has taught 353 courses and over 35,000 students at Carolina since his first class 42 summers ago.
It’s an impressive achievement but it doesn’t get to the heart of who he is.
Skender is the kind of guy who sends an apology email if he’s running 5 minutes late. He will call you “my friend” and do his best impression of Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” or Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.”
He’s self-deprecating, disarmingly funny and always nattily dressed, often sporting Carolina blue suspenders or braces, a bow tie (three times a week without fail), lapel pins and a crisp pocket square. His email signature includes the number of days he has been married to his wife, Mary Anne. More recently, he includes the number of days he has been alive.
Skender always taught the way he would’ve wanted to be taught. He gives out candy bars for correct answers, asks sports trivia questions and plays music that’s related to the material he’s covering or sets a tone for the class.
When you had an 8 a.m. accounting class and Skender was your professor, you didn’t miss it. When it was full, you added yourself to the waitlist.
Skender’s final class of 2023 was the last class of his remarkable career. Retirement means spending more time with his wife, his three adult children (all Carolina alumni) and his eight grandchildren.
After a career in six different decades spread across three major North Carolina universities, collecting dozens of professional honors and helping shape the careers of countless students, Skender has earned it.
“You know, at 300 wins you’re in Cooperstown if you’re a major league pitcher,” he says.
The truth is that Skender was a hall of famer soon after he began teaching.
The shelves in Skender’s office overflow with accounting textbooks, biographies and sports memorabilia. His high school basketball jersey (No. 44) sits framed, and music posters take up wall space. VHS tapes and DVDs, alphabetized and well-worn from showing clips in class, take up some shelves, too: “Billy Madison,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Caddyshack.”
Everything comes with a story. There are lists of songs he played in class over the decades, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,
which he also played when he proposed to his wife. Two of his favorite songs are “Carolina in My Mind” (expected) and “Gangsta’s Paradise” (only unexpected if you don’t know him well).
When then-Carolina basketball star Luke Maye (BSBA ’19) walked into Skender’s accounting class at 8 a.m. the morning after his last-second game-winning shot against Kentucky that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 2017, Skender played “First of May” by the Bee Gees, “Maybe Baby” by the Crickets, “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and “May I” by Bill Deal and the Rhondels.
Skender is a good teacher because of his ability to enliven a classroom and his deep well of accounting expertise. He is a great one because he believes in the potential of every student who entered his classroom.
“I always try to see the best in others and do the best I can do,” says Skender. “Everyone has a dream. What matters is that you try to live that dream. If you aim for the stars, perhaps you don’t quite get that high, but you get awfully close. You’re still successful.”
Skender’s approach to teaching and personal engagement was showcased in Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take,” a look at how helping others drives success. Grant describes Skender’s impact in the classroom as impossible to quantify.
“You’re the Michael Jordan of teaching accounting,” Grant wrote in a retirement message to Skender, “so I’m holding out hope that you’ll follow in his footsteps and un-retire at least twice.”
Since 1979, Skender has taught at Carolina, NC State University and Duke University —simultaneously for several years — and received numerous teaching honors from them all. At UNC Kenan-Flagler, he won three Weatherspoon Awards, including one in 2023, for Teaching Excellence in the Undergraduate Business Program and Master of Accounting Program (MAC). He received the University’s James M. Johnston Teaching Excellence Award in 2005.
Students once voted him the best professor in a Daily Tar Heel survey. Poets & Quants included him on its list of the top 40 undergraduate professors and Bloomberg Businessweek named him one of the 10 best undergraduate teachers in America.
He’s a member of the Wells Fargo Hall of Fame, worked as a training consultant for Siemens and IBM, and taught on local cable TV. He co-wrote “Financial Accounting” and accumulated 11 professional certifications for accounting, management, insurance and financial planning.
He’s likely the only accounting professor to ever be featured both in the Journal of Accountancy and on ESPN.
“Not everybody likes accounting, but it was never a goal of mine to change people’s minds about it,” he says. “I wanted them to look forward to coming to class and enjoy the time when they’re there. Hopefully, I made it a little bit easier for them.”
There was a lot Skender wanted to do when he was a child and most of it did not include accounting or teaching. In elementary school, he wanted to be a priest. By seventh grade, he shifted to basketball coach. During college, he settled on becoming a disc jockey.
Chatting with his mom after dinner one summer evening in 1975, Skender told her he had figured it all out. He would work as a DJ during the radio graveyard shift, midnight to 6 a.m. On the weekends, he would play junior high dances to make some extra money.
“She didn’t say anything. She just started crying,” says Skender. “Tears were rolling down her face and all I could do was sit there.”
Skender was just 11 when his father died. An insurance man who did not attend college, he helped his son master fractions in the fourth grade to prepare for a national test. His dad has always been his favorite teacher.
“After he passed away, I was not in the best place. I was nasty, frustrated, hurt,” says Skender. “I remember my mom being told to send me to a boy’s school and she said, ‘I am not sending my son away to be raised by someone else.’ That was the turning point for me.”
Skender got his life back on track, prioritizing education and sports. He attended Lehigh University on a basketball scholarship and earned a bachelor’s in accounting followed by an MBA from Duke University. He began his career as a CPA but lacked the necessary passion for auditing and jumped at the chance to teach.
“Not everybody likes accounting, but it was never a goal of mine to change people’s minds about it. I wanted them to look forward to coming to class and enjoy the time when they’re there. Hopefully, I made it a little bit easier for them.”
He’s long had a distinctive approach to working with his students. He has always talked with them, not at them. He engaged thoughtfully. He was empathetic but challenged students to recognize and embrace their capabilities.
“One of the points I’ve always made is that students don’t care about how much you know, but they know how much you care.,” he says. “They know if you’re on their side. My policy has always been to be on their side.”
Skender has long been a role model for Courtney Knoll (PhD ’05), tax professor and associate dean of the MAC Program. She said that when she was once at a professional crossroads, Skender took the time to offer life-changing advice to her.
“I feel very special to be able to call C.J. my friend,” Knoll says. “He often includes just that little ‘my friend’ in even the most mundane, logistical email. ‘Thank you, my friend.’ ‘All the best, my friend.’ ‘I live to serve, my friend.’”
“Somehow just those two little words are all it takes to make me smile.”
It’s no secret that Skender typically starts class a few minutes early and ends a few minutes late. That allows for the full Skender experience — the songs, the jokes, a random story or two thrown in.
For his very last class, he needed a bit more time.
Students in his final Financial Accounting section walked into class hearing “Carolina in My Mind” — “Say nice things about me ’cause I’m gone.”
His wife sat in the front row for his final class, recording much of it on her cell phone. Skender’s sister who flew in from Texas, sat beside her. A former student from Milwaukee was there, too. Skender had also taught his mother, father, brother and sister.
“I feel so lucky to have Mary Anne as my inspiration,” Skender says of his wife. “When we started dating in 1976, I would look at her and thank God for dropping an angel in my universe.”
Then he gave one final assignment: “Call or write or text someone from your past and tell them, ‘I appreciate what you did for me.’ Reach out to somebody who has meant something to you.”
He paused for just a moment and looked back up at his class.
“Thank you for the semester. Thank you for the career. Thanks for staying late,” he says. “That’s it. That’s all I got. Keep the change. Excuse me, while I disappear.”
The entire class clapped, and many lined up to say goodbye and thank him. They shook his hand. Some hugged him. One even gave him a chest bump. Several took selfies with him.
“I’ll miss this,” one student says.
We will all miss this, my friend.