The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Are Teaching and Research Complements?

One debate you often hear among academics and non academics concerns whether too much time is spent in research and whether this detracts from teaching. In an important article about the emergence of major research universities, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz argue that paucity of major research universities founded after the 19th Century is indicative of the strong relationship between teaching and research.

Now, two business school faculty have taken up the question, albeit in an indirect way -- challenging whether business schools are too research focused and as a result are failing to give students the right skills they need in business. The Chronicle of Higher Education describes their argument:, published today in the Harvard Business Review.

"Business schools are 'institutionalizing their own irrelevance' by focusing on scientific research rather than real-life business practices, according to a blistering critique of M.B.A. programs that will be published today in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. The article, 'How Business Schools Lost Their Way,' was written by Warren G. Bennis and James O'Toole, both prominent professors at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. Mr. Bennis is also the founding chairman of the university's Leadership Institute, and Mr. O'Toole is a research professor at Southern Cal's Center for Effective Organizations.

"Mr. Bennis and Mr. O'Toole conclude that business schools are too focused on theory and quantitative approaches, and that, as a result, they are graduating students who lack useful business skills and sound ethical judgment. The authors call on business schools to become more like medical and law schools, which treat their disciplines as professions rather than academic departments, and to expect faculty members to be practicing members of their professions.

"'We cannot imagine a professor of surgery who has never seen a patient or a piano teacher who doesn't play the instrument, and yet today's business schools are packed with intelligent, highly skilled faculty with little or no managerial experience,' the two professors write. 'As a result, they can't identify the most important problems facing executives and don't know how to analyze the indirect and long-term implications of complex business decisions.'
While business deans pay lip service to making their courses more relevant, particularly when they are trying to raise money, their institutions continue to promote and award tenure to faculty members with narrow, scientific specialties, the authors contend.

""By allowing the scientific-research model to drive out all others, business schools are institutionalizing their own irrelevance," the authors write."

"....Mr. Bennis and Mr. O'Toole....say that business schools, which in the early 20th century had the reputation of being little more than glorified trade schools, have swung too far in the other direction by focusing too heavily on research. The shift began in 1959, they say, when the Ford and Carnegie Foundations issued scathing reports about the state of business-school research.

While the Southern Cal professors say they do not favor a return to the trade-school days, they think business schools, and business professors, have grown too comfortable with an approach that serves their own needs but hurts students.

"This model gives scientific respectability to the research they enjoy doing and eliminates the vocational stigma that business-school professors once bore," the article concludes. "In short, the model advances the careers and satisfies the egos of the professoriate."

I think much the same can be said about schools of Public Policy and Public Affairs. The dominance of the disciplines and the institutionalization of this dominance by the teaching, hiring and promotion process in academia reduce the likelihood that schools will favor experience over research technique, insight over publishability. There is nothing wrong with discipline based research. My hunch (informed by some experience) is that it forms a poor basis with which to inform teaching and most students are uninterested nor able to follow the interesting theoretical and empirical challenges that occupy academics. So perhaps the best of both can be preserved in professional schools by making sure faculty can do both high level research and practice their trade at a high level. I suppose you see more of this in the public policy/affairs realm than in business. But professors in either who have never plied the trade? They certainly are not disqualified from being good and useful teachers. However, the probability that the group will perform at a lower level on the dimension of professional utility is probably elevated.


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