By Gwyneth K. Shaw
When 2L Tara Kay stepped into Professor Kenneth Ayotte’s Corporate Finance class, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Then Ayotte turned to his first lecture slide: A capital “A” next to a photo of a yacht.
“I knew this was going to be a fun class,” says Kay, who also took Bankruptcy with Ayotte — two subjects many consider to be a bit on the dry side.
“But under Ken’s guidance, I found myself deeply engaged and actually enjoying these topics,” she says. “He has a remarkable talent for making the complex relatable and interesting. Or at the very least, for mixing in a good laugh to break up the complexities of involuntary bankruptcy petitions.
“Ken truly embodies the qualities that embody an outstanding educator: passion, knowledge, dedication, and a genuine love for teaching.”
That rapport with students is one of the reasons why Ayotte won this year’s Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction, granted each year to a professor who has dedicated themselves to extraordinary teaching.
An empirical researcher who uses financial and economic tools to better understand the bankruptcy system, he says the happy news came as a complete surprise.
“There are so many outstanding teachers on our faculty, and Berkeley Law stands out in its culture of commitment to teaching excellence,” says Ayotte, who joined the faculty in 2014 after stints at Northwestern Law and Columbia Business School. “To be recognized on this faculty with so many stellar teachers makes the award extra meaningful.”
Ayotte’s top tip? Be yourself at the head of the class.
“I try to reveal my authentic self as much as possible when I’m teaching — to be a real, flawed person. I try to be honest about what I know and what I don’t know,” he says. “This makes my students feel comfortable bringing up ideas that they might be unsure about.
“I’m also working on letting classes go more ‘off script’ whenever possible, because great learning moments happen when you are willing to explore without a particular end in mind.”
3L Jay Krishnan says Ayotte’s humility is a big part of what makes him a terrific teacher. He’ll refer to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (a bankruptcy expert while a law professor) and Jay Westbrook (a titan in the field) as “experts,” but doesn’t put himself in that category, Krishnan says.
“On the very first day of Bankruptcy, Professor Ayotte told us that this material is really challenging, and he doesn’t know everything — but we are all here, himself included, to learn together,” Krishnan says. “It’s my belief that he made this statement because in our class we have students of differing experience levels and he wanted to make sure that all students felt comfortable to ask questions and engage in debate.”
A passion built on compassion
Ayotte says Bankruptcy is his favorite class to teach because of its complexity.
“No matter how much you think you know, there is still an endless amount to be discovered,” he says. “The law and practice is always evolving, so you have to be dynamic to keep up with it.”
Ayotte, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton, has published widely in peer-reviewed journals as well as law reviews in the fields of bankruptcy, corporate finance, and law and economics. He’s a core member of Berkeley Law’s top-ranked business law group, which centers around the Berkeley Center for Law and Business, and active in the American Law and Economics Association.
Ayotte says bankruptcy law also interests him because it can give struggling people and companies relief and an opportunity to start fresh.
“With time and breathing space, people can make amends for past mistakes and figure out how to move forward,” he says.
Krishnan calls Ayotte’s passion for the field contagious. In addition, he’s a “great friend to students,” willing to talk about subjects outside the law. For example, Ayotte famously hates the Canadian rock band Nickelback, students say, and often uses the band and frontman Chad Kroeger in hypothetical questioning.
“I never thought I would see the day where a lecture on bankruptcy law would include a discussion on the merits, or lack thereof, of Canadian rock music,” Kay says. “Beyond his entertaining lectures, Ken is a truly dedicated and caring professor. He goes above and beyond to ensure his students feel supported in their academic pursuits.
“He encourages discussion and debate, always pushing us to think critically and consider different perspectives — unless that perspective is that Nickelback is a great band.”
At the recent Rutter Award ceremony, Krishnan jokingly suggested that Ayotte does share one thing in common with Kroeger, who once said, “I honestly think with every song you release you have to keep winning your fans over and over again.”
“I think Professor Ayotte acknowledges that teachers share a similar yet rewarding burden
of constantly winning over their students daily, and he most certainly does not disappoint,” Krishnan says. “We’ve learned in law school that secured creditors are typically at the head of the cap table. But in Professor Ayotte’s life, we know it’s us, his students, who are never an exception to the absolute priority rule.”