The Role of Research in Business Schools

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In the Financial Times, there was a feature piece interviewing Larry Zicklin who wants to eliminate research funding and promotions for academics in business schools. Naturally, I disagree. I wasn’t the only one. UTS’s Timothy Devinney published a comment on that post that he gave me permission to reproduce here.

Comment by Professor Timothy Devinney:

It is interesting how over my 20 years as an academic I have heard this sort of logic again and again and again. Invariably it is from adjunct faculty with a more ‘professional’ background complaining that they do not understand what it is that academics do and why the do not ‘teach’ more or that their promotions should be based more on teaching. Unfortunately such arguments, while valid to the individuals who make them, are based mainly on faulty logic and a basic misunderstanding of what is going on. For example, whenever I go and work with a company I am amazed at how much time managers waste actually doing nothing but monitoring and interacting with other managers? Why are they not working with customers more? Why are they not out in the field rounding up more business? Isn’t it inefficient to have them in meetings so often invariably doing little more than playing power games against other managers? Of course, this is a naive viewpoint and it is based on my failure to understand what these managers do. Ditto Mr. Zicklin’s view of academics in business schools. Here are some points that matter.

His view of teaching is dominantly one of information dissemination. Having been at the top and bottom of the academic food chain (being both at U. Chicago and now in Australia at what is dominantly a teaching factory) I have seen the differences. The students at Chicago get knowledge at the coal face by people who understand what is both leading edge and sophisticated. Students here get commoditized information delivered by individuals who only know what they read because they are not leading edge scholars. Indeed, where the MOOC Tsunami will hit is on this commoditized end of the business.

Second, his viewpoint is based on the ‘leach on society’ view of academics. I argue that good scholars are some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world. Imagine Mr. Zicklin working in a business in which the failure rate is > 90% (which is the rejection rate of most leading journals). Also, it does not matter where you reside or which university you are at since the rejection is based on blind review. Imagine your typical corporate manager working in an environment in which their work was evaluated blindly and in 9 cases out of 10 rejected as being inadequate. Imagine also those individuals attempting to run projects on little more than scraps of funding (for an average academic on what is known as a 40:40:20 contract the actual cost of the research per year amounts to only about $50,000 per year). Most companies spend more on business class airfare for managers than this. Most universities spend 20 times this on the basketball coach.

Third, most good academics could easily make more money outside academics than inside academics. When I received my PhD I had an offer from one of the major consultancies. It was three times my academic salary. But I remained an academic because I believed in what I wanted to do. I argue that the difference between managers and academics is that managers give up what they love for money while academics give up money for what they love. If you take away the scholarship aspect of this then the equation skews toward money. So if I am going to sing for my supper then I want to be paid for singing. Unfortunately as soon as that occurs I end up choosing not to be an academic. In reality, we have serious problems getting good brains to commit to getting phds and hence the pool of potential future faculty is actually drying up. If anything the premium needs to be bigger not smaller.

Fourth, Mr. Zicklin’s argument that promotion is all about research and not teaching is just wrong. You cannot get promoted anywhere as a basket case in the classroom. Indeed, nearly every academic I know is quite good to very exceptional in the classroom. It is also the cases that I know where we looked at exactly this we found that our best scholars were our best teachers. So this idea that there are ‘teachers’ and there are ‘researchers’ is just nonsense. The best scholars are on average exceptional at communicating. Mr. Zicklin’s problem is that he is basing his viewpoint on myth and exceptions and not evidence. However, in the end, if your best scholars are you best teachers the institution must make a decision as to the allocation of their time. Unfortunately, good scholars are rare and institutions cannot replace them as easily as they could to one trick teaching ponies.

Finally, the fact that academic journals are not read by managers is absolutely meaningless. These journals are not meant for managers. That is why you have HBR, Sloan Mgt Review, McKinsey Quarterly and other outlets. Any good journalist or writer will tell you that you write to the audience. If you want to communicate with managers you do it differently than when you speak to other scientists. As soon as you attempt to write to everyone you actually communicate with no one. I personally am the sort of academic that communicates to broad audiences (like my colleague Pankaj) but I do not expect managers to read my academic articles. Also, in a response to Freek Vermeulen on this same topic (also in the FT), I argued that we as academics influence practice one student at a time by how we do what we do and what we pick to have in our classes and how we communicate in public forums. Many of the examples above are good examples of others. And there are many many more.

So while Mr. Zicklin’s arguments appear to be logical and reasonable I would argue that you need to be careful about what you wish for. There is more than one tsunami approaching and my view is that the more dangerous one is that there are fewer and fewer potential scholars choosing to be academics because the personal benefits of such a career are being eroded while the financial compensation is not sufficient to offset this. If I had to make the decision today that I made 20+ years ago I would not go into academics. I would chase the money, cash out and then become and adjunct faculty member writing opinion pieces for the FT while living the life of the casual academic.

7 Responses to "The Role of Research in Business Schools"
  1. This seems a reasonable response, but a little polemical, if not defensive.

    A.C. Grayling’s latest book speaks of the professionalisation of philosophy over the last 150 years as it became a salaried pursuit in academies. He observes how it has become ever more meta and self-serving, abstracted from the “applied” thinking that characterised the philosopher giants of human giants.

    This seems to me to be a theme writ large in much of academia. Society has long provided for a select few to live off the public purse in the pursuit of common knowledge. But it has just been a select few. It seems now to have become a large industry, and one wonders (I certainly do) about the intellectual capacity (and incentives) of many of those who now make their living from “research”.

    So, I would suggest that there is a little more to this than meets the eye. Having a go at the adjunct “misters” seems to miss the point.

  2. Society has long provided for a select few to live off the public purse in the pursuit of common knowledge. But it has just been a select few. It seems now to have become a large industry, and one wonders (I certainly do) about the intellectual capacity (and incentives) of many of those who now make their living from “research” ….

    My comment on this is two fold. Universities have always been about “other people’s money”. Students (and their families) never ever pay the full cost which is made up by a mixture of donors, tax payers, and (in Australia) full fee payers. So the argument about the “public purse” is limited. Indeed, in Australia nearly 1/2 of the central running costs of universities is paid for by full fee paying foreigners. In the US most all major business schools lose money on operations and only cover the cost with donations (large and small). So that part of the discussion is far more complex. The focus on the select few living the “life of Riley” does not take into account that most students don’t actually pay for what they get (unless of course you are a foreign student — then you pay for many others too).

    Secondarily, I would agree with the second part of your statement when it comes to Australia. The median H index of a business academic in Australia is so close to zero as to be zero. Only about 100-200 of the almost 4,000-5,000 b school academics actually do work that would pass muster internationally (in spite of what the ERA might say). The reason this poor state of affairs exist is that the universities need the cash from the foreigners and someone has to teach them. One option is to have a small faculty with scholars doing a mixture of teaching and research and an army of adjuncts who are just teaching fodder. The second is to have a bunch of mediocre faculty that you tout as “world class” when everyone knows that they are anything but very average (which is what the NTEU wants). Australia has opted for the latter model and we have massive faculties with most ‘staff’ attempting to do science/scholarship but really just pushing out stuff that no one wants to read (including other academics) and getting it published in inconsequential outlets. I another article on my own blog (www.modern-cynic.org) I talk about Australian business schools being in the range of intellectual diseconomies of scale. Indeed, many universities are now considering teaching only tracks for promotion. My view on this is that it them throwing in the towel because they cannot hire balanced scholars.

  3. I am not quite sure how to respond to this, the debate has taken some new turns that do not seem to naturally follow from the original post. But, it seems we are broadly in agreement?

    I don’t think the fact that the mix of public and private funding of universities in Australia versus those abroad matters terribly much. The point is, that it is some form of public-interest purse.

    On the substantive points I find it hard to be terribly critical about the outcomes in Australia. It seems to be meeting a market demand rather well, to the benefit of its producers and consumers. The fact that both have an incentive to make it out to be somewhat different to what it is, is life. Nothing new here and nothing to be gained by tilting at windmills. Those smart enough should surely be able to see the wood for the trees, those not get their fair dues.

    On a related matter, there seems to be a sub-text to this discussion, related to institutional prestige. I do wonder about the great deal that is made of institutional prestige. I am a mid career part time student, struggling to fit a PhD around work that pays the rent. I know very well that the institution that I am pursuing it through is to many a commoditised provider of education. But I have a great deal of respect for some of the people in it, and the fact that I am pursuing my research through this institution has not (as far as I can tell) put off leading academics abroad from interacting with me.

    Would it matter if the University did not have at least a few world class thinkers and researchers? From my perspective, yes. But I would be happier with a few exceptional thinkers than a thicker layer of also-rans.

  4. “You cannot get promoted anywhere as a basket case in the classroom. Indeed, nearly every academic I know is quite good to very exceptional in the classroom…

    …The best scholars are on average exceptional at communicating.”

    I did an honours degree in Economics and I strongly disagree with your. I would describe a handful of my lecturers in that entire time as being exceptional – 1/3rd of my lecturers were borderline unintelligible. The more senior the lecturer was generally the worse they were at communicating concepts to students, and after reading this piece most of my colleagues (from a number of different Australian Universities) made similar comments.

    The ones who do rave about the teaching abilities of their lecturers invariably studied in England.

    This whole article just sounds entirely defensive – methinks you protest far too much.

  5. That should be “I did an honours degree in Economics and I strongly disagree with your assessment.”

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