Bill Ridgers | October 24th 2012 | @EG_LeadershipTE
In March 2013 the EIU will name its business professor of the year. Here, Bill Ridgers, The Economist's Business Education Editor and one of the judges, says that what universities and students want from a professor are two different things.
W.H. AUDEN defined a professor as someone who talks in other people's sleep. Few sounds are more restful than the white noise of an academic in full, somnolent drone. But professors of business are less likely to get away with a tepid performance in the classroom, at least in theory. For one thing, their students will have paid an awful lot of money for the privilege of listening to them bang on about supply-chain management. Tuition fees at most of the top American MBA programmes are now well in excess of $100,000. For another, the professors themselves will be earning a small fortune. So fierce is the worldwide competition for business faculty that even the most mediocre can expect a salary of $250,000 a year. (And don't forget that, like dogs, professor-years are measured differently to human ones. Theirs only lasts nine months; which is lucky, given that there is a lot of lucrative consulting work and guest lecturing that needs squeezing in.)
It is just as well then that, by and large, they do live up to students' expectations. In The Economist's latest MBA ranking, the average rating given by students to a business school’s faculty was 4.4 out of 5. Often, it seems you get what you pay for. Faculty at prestigious schools such as Chicago, NYU, Yale and Harvard all ranked in the top ten for student satisfaction (see table). But it need not always follow. MBAs at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, whose students pay around $30,000 less than their Harvard counterparts, gushed about their faculty, awarding them the highest rating of any school surveyed.
Table: Rating of MBA students satisfaction with faculty, top 10 (out of 5)
Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)
New York (Stern)
Washington St Louis (Olin)
Source: The Economist
Asking what makes for a good business professor is not straightforward. Students like inspiring teachers, with a broad knowledge of their subject and, preferably, some experience applying classroom theories at a real-life company. In The Economist survey, MBA students are asked to rate three things: teaching ability, approachability and the quality of professors’ research.
It is clear from the ratings that there are many who score highly in all three criteria. But there would be more if the culture in universities accorded more respect for teaching ability and relevance to the world of business. In fact, being an inspiring teacher, or someone who has worked in the world of commerce, does not bring renown to a business faculty. Quite the opposite. Professors are generally recognised for their academic research, which is often in an esoteric field with not a smidgen of relevance to the average boss (or MBA student). For the most ambitious, teaching pesky students can be little more than an unwelcome diversion. Often, the more renowned the professor, the less time he is likely to spend with students. Tales abound of Nobel Prize winning faculty who have not seen the inside of a lecture theatre in years.
There have been attempts to reward good teachers. AACSB, the most important business-school accreditation agency, has been talking for years about valuing pedagogy as highly as it does research output when it assesses institutions. The trouble is, the business schools and their faculty generally do not like this idea. They have fought a long battle to win the respect of other university departments, which used to sneer at what they saw as mere vocational colleges. Acceptance has been won due to a conspicuous obsession with academic rigour. Ceding this, will feel to some like betrayal.
There is a balance to be struck. Some think that students should not be regarded as customers—regardless of whether they have paid a six-figure sum to the university. It would seem to go against every academic principle, for example, to put them in charge of the curriculum. And as the competition for faculty gets tougher, professors will be in a stronger position to dictate their terms, which may include more time for research and less for teaching.
And yet in some ways schools are also being pulled in the opposite direction. Prospective MBA students can now choose between thousands of programmes on every continent. Students are able to be more discerning as rankings that examine schools’ performance, including student satisfaction, have proliferated. Business schools must now woo applicants as never before. And cash-strapped universities, which depend on their profitable management programmes, are scared of losing out. This means giving MBA students a meaningful experience on campus. It will be interesting to see which of these poles has the strongest pull.
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