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.