A decade ago most aspiring business professors headed west, to the US. These days they are heading in the opposite direction: Asia is becoming the hotspot for the top management thinkers.

The past year has seen some of the world’s most distinguished business professors move to Asia – China and Singapore in particular. Blair Sheppard, former dean of the Fuqua school at Duke University in the US, Arnoud de Meyer, former dean of the University of Cambridge’s Judge business school, Howard Thomas, former dean of Warwick Business School in the UK, and George Yip, former dean of the Rotterdam School of Management, are just a few.

One obvious reason is the growth in Asian economies, says John Quelch, the Harvard marketing professor and former dean at London Business School, who became dean at Ceibs in Shanghai in January. “The relative growth trajectories favour Asia rather than Europe and the US. In the US, recent political intransigence is adding to the feeling of malaise.”

In particular, economic growth is coupled with a real willingness to invest in high-quality education, he adds. “Cuts in higher education funding in developed economies are being felt by faculty, particularly in state-run universities, in terms of research funding. Faculty are being asked to teach more [at the expense of research].”

Financial investment is particularly evident in Singapore, where business schools are paying “telephone number salaries” to lure top professors. “I think we all have the feeling that the governments are very committed to investing in education and in institutions,” says Prof de Meyer, now president at Singapore Management University. “The willingness to invest in research and education is very high.”

It is even high by US standards, says Columbia marketing professor Bernd Schmitt, who will spend the next two years masterminding Singapore’s S$77m (US$64m) Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, set up by Singapore’s Economic Development Board and hosted at Nanyang Technical University. “This [institute] is a big thing. It would not be set up in the US or Europe.”

The investment in research means many Asian schools can now compete at the highest levels in the type of rigorous, data-driven study favoured in US business schools, says Prof Thomas, dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at SMU. There are 10 Asian business schools in the 2011 ranking of the top 100 research institutions, compiled by the University of Texas at Dallas, compared with six European schools. (Insead has campuses in Asia and Europe.)

However, having established their credentials in the orthodoxy of US research, Asian business schools are now developing their own points of reference, says Prof Thomas. “The US model was dominant but now you see phases of innovation.”

Prof Yip believes the best researchers in Asia need to behave differently from those in the US because of the rapidly growing business opportunities. “The Chinese want more immediately applicable learning . . . US schools have got locked into the theoretical journal orthodoxy. They like theory rather than context. In an emerging market it is all about context.”

This rapid innovation is one reason why Asia is so exciting for top researchers. Questions such as how to manage companies with double-digit growth, or how to market to the base of the pyramid, are central themes of Asian research. For Prof Yip, who will head the Centre on Chinese Innovation, the question is why is innovation now happening in a country that known for imitation? For Prof Schmitt, the issue is about the assumptions made in consumer research. “In the second half of the 20th century the US consumer has been the reference point . . . in the future: the Asian consumer may be the reference point.”

Innovation in Asia can be used to help create changes at universities back home, says Prof Sheppard, who stepped down as dean at Fuqua to become head of fundraising and business development for Duke Kunshan University in China earlier this year. But transferring successful experimentation from China to the US is only one reason for his enthusiasm.

“There is the real opportunity in China to go beyond the institution, to help the country. It’s more than just graduating more engineers. There’s real potential in helping the country evolve.” He cites Stanford University, which helped create Silicon Valley.

Many business schools go to China to make money, he says, “To me that’s the least exciting part. It’s more than interacting with smart students; it’s more than the size of the market. It’s the potential to help create things. It’s the scope of the opportunity.”

Prof de Meyer also points to the changing balance of power between US and Chinese business and academia. “Most American business schools have seen Asia as a place to sell education, not as somewhere you could learn something.”

Those professors now focused on Asia have often spent many years studying the region. Prof Schmitt has been teaching in Asia for the past 20 years, while Prof de Meyer founded Insead’s Singapore campus. All have well-established careers.

But there is also a growing number of younger faculty who want to start their careers in Asia. “At the younger level, I’ve had several faculty come to me recently with small children who say they want to move to China so their children will be bilingual,” says Prof Quelch. “That is something you would not have heard five years ago.”

Prof de Meyer says that when he first moved to Singapore with Insead there were no local high-quality schools to attract younger faculty. “Now you can build a real academic career here. People choose this place because there is quality of life, but they feel that they will be employable anywhere else in the world.”

Advances in networking technology is one reason for this, according to Prof Yip. “Top Asian schools can now give you the support you get in a top western school. You can now be part of the global community of scholars.”

Prof Thomas predicts that other Asian countries will invest in business schools. “Indonesia, is sitting on a ton of natural resources; Vietnam is growing and is really entrepreneurial.” The developments in China and Singapore may be just the tip of the iceberg.

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