Published: April 4, 2024

By Joe Arney

It’s often been said that where you choose to sit in a lecture hall says a lot about what you want out of a particular class. Those students who take the first row of chairs tend to be the hand-raisers, the participators, the ones who turn in assignments on time and can be counted on for lively in-class discussions.

When he’s teaching an advertising course in a lecture hall, Harsha Gangadharbatla appreciates those reliable go-getters—but he’s always got one eye on the back row.

“Once in a while, I’ll invite a student to visit during my office hours so I can ask them what’s going on, why they want to be there,” said Gangadharbatla, professor of advertising, public relations and media design and associate dean of faculty development at the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. “And somehow, through multiple conversations with them, there’s this shift in attitude, and I see them do really great work over the rest of the semester. And a few of them go on to do amazing things—and those are the ones I’m most proud of.”

That little adverb, “somehow,” hides the tremendous effort he puts into teaching. As his current and former students will tell you, Gangadharbatla may appear relaxed at the front of the classroom, but he cares deeply about sharing his knowledge and being the bridge that gets students from college to the careers they want.

And it’s certainly why, in March, Gangadharbatla was named winner of the Charles H. Sandage Award for Teaching Excellence of the American Academy of Advertising. He is only the 14th professor to win the award since it was created in the 1990s. The “Sandy” celebrates sustained and varied excellence in teaching and mentoring, and is considered the most prestigious award to recognize and celebrate sustained contributions to advertising education.

Unlocking prestigious internships

Harsha accepting his award from two presenters at the event.Nalina Datta, a senior studying advertising at CMCI, said Gangadharbatla’s impact is felt well beyond the classroom. He nominated her for the Vance and Betty Lee Stickell Award last summer, which unlocked an internship at TBWA\Chiat\Day, among the most prestigious advertising agencies in New York City.

“CU is so big and there are so many opportunities—it can be a little daunting to figure out where you belong,” Datta said. “Harsha did a great job of helping me understand where I am, where I want to go and how to get there.”

Ask Gangadharbatla why he won the award, and he mostly discusses his years of service to AAA, which includes working as its president and chairing committees in research and international advertising. But he considers the ability to connect with and inspire students outside of formal classroom activities to be supremely important, both for his success and in a future where artificial intelligence plays a growing role in university life.

“I see the next 20 years as being the most challenging for anyone in higher education because of the proliferation of technology, and developments like A.I. and automation,” he said. “The future will be less about giving people information, and more about identifying the potential in someone, the goals and aspirations they have, and connecting them to those outcomes they want.”

As you might expect from his interest in A.I., Gangadharbatla is a highly respected thought leader in the areas where communication, technology and business overlap. He said being at a place like CMCI, where communication-, media- and information science-related disciplines intersect, has been a great benefit to his research work, which straddles several areas.

“The other units in our college are very helpful in informing and also challenging the work that I do,” he said. “Their work really makes me think about my own work in a different light, and ask different kinds of research questions to bring a different perspective.”

Inspiring the next generation

Saima Kazmi, who is completing her PhD from APRD this spring, said she considers herself lucky to have Gangadharbatla as her advisor. She’s tried to absorb the relaxed, yet attuned, way he conducts himself both in and out of class.

“That’s the most gratifying feeling there is—someone is literally attributing their entire life trajectory to something you told them, or said in a classroom.”
Harsha Gangadharbatla, associate dean and professor, APRD

“He’s got so many students who he’s in touch with, and people who just turn up to ask for his help or get him as a guest speaker,” she said. “I really aspire to be like that—where students remember me and reach out when they need help or have news to share.”

Harry Morof (StratComm’18), associate director of media and analytics for ad agency Duncan Channon, said studying advertising at CMCI gave him access to many incredible professors, “but Harsha stands out for his passion for, and commitment to, his students.”

Morof’s work has a decided healthcare theme, having worked on campaigns concerning vaccines, vaping prevention and opioid abuse in California. He still recalls how effective his former professor was in helping students make valuable connections as they began their careers.

“Both in and out of the classroom, he is approachable and supportive, and he regularly makes efforts to connect people within his network,” Morof said. “Just take a look at his LinkedIn.”

It’s not just connections he shares with his students. Datta said Gangadharbatla “encouraged me to say yes” and show up in the office even when the culture was hybrid. By coming in on one of her remote days, she had the chance to meet and speak with Rob Schwartz, an influential leader in advertising who’s held several leadership roles at TBWA.

“Harsha taught me to raise my hand, to volunteer, to show up and be present, which is how I got to meet Rob,” she said. “It’s helped me get where I am now.”

Those little interactions, he said, are the most rewarding part of teaching.

“I still hear from students from some of my earliest classes, who are now VPs and directors and that sort of thing,” he said. “And I love getting emails where they tell me, I was in your intro class, I was another major—but you inspired me to change to advertising, and so now I’m doing this.

“That’s the most gratifying feeling there is—someone is literally attributing their entire life trajectory to something you told them, or said in a classroom.”