Focus should be on teaching, not research

Can one become a professor at a business school without having spent a day working in business? Indeed one can. In fact, the pipeline is well established. One can go straight from school to university to take a degree in business, management, or commerce, or whatever the university chooses to call it; then, if grades are good enough, move on to an MSc or other ‘pre-experience’ postgraduate degree and from there to a PhD.

With a doctorate, one can then get a job as an assistant professor and over time move up the academic ladder. One can do research and even teach people how to become managers, all without any practical experience of the subject whatsoever.

This situation is relatively new. Twenty years ago it was quite rare to find business school teaching staff who had come straight down the academic pipeline without any work experience. They were regarded as a breed apart from ordinary teaching staff, ‘eggheads’ who were good at research but not much else.

Now it is increasingly common to find business schools where the majority of teaching staff are ‘pre-experience’. The trend is particularly strong in continental Europe: I looked recently at the profiles of teaching staff at a German business school and found only two who had managerial experience. All the rest appeared to have come through the pipeline. This practice is now spreading in the UK and also elsewhere.

The hiring of these academically gifted but completely inexperienced individuals has been justified on the grounds that the primary task of business schools is to conduct research. Those from a purely academic background may not have been trained to do much else, but surely they are very able researchers. This is so, especially when the research being done is of a theoretical, or “blue skies” nature. Such teaching staff are steeped in the research methodologies of the social sciences and produce streams of papers for academic journals. This delights deans and department heads because their research rankings go up.

Problems begin when these inexperienced individuals are put into classrooms, especially when those classrooms are full of MBA students. Typically, MBA students have three to five years’ experience of management. A room full of 30 people represents more than a century of combined experience.

Like anyone who spends any time in management, MBA students have acute noses for nonsense. When an inexperienced “teacher” presents them with ideas grounded in theory but that the teacher cannot relate to practice – because he or she has no practical experience on which to fall back on – students will make their dissatisfaction known. I have seen students berate weak lecturers, or even walk out of classrooms altogether.

MBA students know when the people “teaching” them have less experience than they do themselves. They can smell fear. It takes considerable confidence and courage to stand up and teach on a subject on which one has no practical experience and imparting confidence and courage is not part of the training for business school teaching staff. Nor do these individuals receive any training in how to teach; they are simply thrown into the classroom and left to swim or, more frequently, sink. Small wonder that many of them hate teaching and try to wriggle out of it if possible.

Now we see the increasing trend towards hiring “teaching faculty”, usually low-paid recent PhD graduates who are trying to get a foot in the door and start their business school careers. They have even less experience and even less confidence than their more senior colleagues.

These business school foot soldiers are going to come under increasingly heavy fire. Today’s students are quite a different proposition from yesterday’s. Having paid £9,000 a year for their courses and with a lifetime of debt to look forward to, undergraduates are demanding value for money. Having paid even more, MBAs are even more insistent on quality. They will not put up with inadequate teaching.

And as universities compete for a now dwindling supply of students, the emphasis will – must – shift away from research and back towards teaching. What chance do those with no business experience, who can research concepts but not translate them into practice, stand in this brave new world?

Morgen Witzel is a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter Business School

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