At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, a group of anxious college students was huddled outside a basement classroom in Mudd Hall. They were wearing black robes resembling graduation gowns and holding a red gift bag and an old-looking boombox.
These five students represented a portion of the university’s Mortar Board, which promotes and recognizes academic excellence at the university.
One girl, not in a black robe, took the boombox and ran into the classroom. The group of black-robed students huddled together and one exclaimed excitedly that this will be the first “tapping” he will ever take part in.
The group lined up as last-minute students darted into the classroom. They giggled as they passed the strange outfits of the Mortar Board members.
“We look like Dementors,” one of the students said.
Outside the classroom, the USC fight song rang out. It’s show time. The black robes waltzed into the classroom and stood in a line at the front, while the non-robed girl, Angeli Agrawal, turned off the music and stood up to read a speech.
Agrawal had nominated Adlai Wertman, a professor of clinical management and organization, to be recognized by Mortar Board through a tapping ceremony, which is designed to be a surprise for the professor.
Wertman put on his glasses and looked puzzled to the front of the classroom. He sat down and looked forward.
He had no idea that he was this semester’s Mortar Board honoree. In fact, his first thought was that the group of students was presenting an assignment that all students were scheduled to present.
“And then I noticed that none of these students are in the class,” he said.
Wertman is no ordinary professor. Before coming to USC, he spent 18 years working on Wall Street. Wertman then left Wall Street to run a homeless agency on Skid Row and spent seven years as president and CEO of Chrysalis, a non profit in Los Angeles solely devoted to helping the homeless find employment.
Wertman said he wants to encourage business students to make a difference.
“Students who went to business school weren’t looking at careers in social enterprises, and people who wanted a career focused on helping others weren’t going to business school,” Wertman said.
Wertman said USC was a good fit for motivating students to make a difference because of support from Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis and the inclination USC students have to make a difference.
“USC students naturally feel that they have a responsibility and role in society after graduation,” Wertman said.
At USC, he founded the Society and Business Lab at Marshall — an organization dedicated to teaching students the importance of business from a social reform perspective.
According to Wertman, everything he has accomplished in life — or just about — can be attributed to his good fortune.
“I was born in the United States. I was born with parents who prioritized education. And I was born with an innate ability to learn and an ability to communicate,” he said. “The only thing I added to that was hard work.”
As a result, Wertman felt it didn’t seem fair to just worry about maximizing income.
“I felt it was my responsibility to use those gifts to help people who weren’t born as lucky as I was,” he said.
For Wertman, receiving the Mortar Board honor confirmed that he’s doing his job and accomplishing his goals.
“Since my goal is to teach and inspire students, I am really honored by being told that my students are acknowledging that I’m doing my job [and inspiring them],” Wertman said.