MBA Programs

Stop Forcing Business Schools to Pack Their Faculty With Ph.D.s


You might expect a business school to have plenty of faculty currently employed in their chosen profession. Most business school faculty members, however, have more experience in the classroom than in business.

That stems from requirements imposed by accrediting bodies such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Until last year the AACSB required a majority of B-school faculty to have Ph.D.s. (The organization now requires that at least 40 percent of faculty have a doctorate—down from 75 percent—and gives schools more leeway in how they categorize their teaching staff to meet that minimum level.) Corporate executives teaching at B-schools usually have years, if not decades, of work experience, but most have capped their academic careers at the master’s level.

Without accreditation, business schools may not be included in some published B-school rankings. A strong rank is the gravitational force that attracts students. Companies also use accreditation to judge whether they should sponsor their managers in executive education programs, an important source of revenue for many institutions.

My school, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, is not accredited by the AACSB because we don’t come close to meeting the minimum Ph.D. guideline. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, but that organization doesn’t carry the same weight as the AACSB.

It’s not that I place little value on Ph.D. credentials. My concern is about placing too much value on credentials that have not been vetted in the competitive marketplace. Executives that teach MBA classes can share lessons from their successes and, just as important, their failures.

That knowledge is what companies demand from our MBAs. Can doctorate-level business school professors prepare students for market ambiguity, industry shifts, and lukewarm employee motivation? Have they honed their knowledge to keep up with changes in the marketplace?

Unfortunately, academic institutions with a majority of tenured faculty (a level of job security that’s matched nowhere in business) can’t quickly respond to changing business and student needs. Tenured professors are often more interested in research than in solving business problems, and they hold incredible power within the institutions to keep the status quo.

Our job as educators is to clearly define, and constantly evaluate, the skills and critical thinking required to mentor future business leaders. The curriculum has no value if it’s not current with the demands of the business world. Faculty members that are also working managers understand that the classic formulas and theories are not sufficient, nor has the traditional B-school pedagogy evolved fast enough to keep pace with a rapidly changing business environment.

At Lake Forest, our faculty is 100 percent business practitioners. We don’t “settle” for them—we specifically seek them out, hiring faculty members with master’s degrees but also a unique mix of street-smart expertise and proven business acumen, plus the ability to teach both theory and practice.

What value do these teachers have?

Credibility with students
MBA students value faculty that have met payroll and had profit and loss responsibilities. These teachers understand that there is no singular discipline that can resolve complex product and market challenges, and no simple algorithm that will spew out the answer.

No mixed agendas
Business professionals are not compromised by trying to do research or advancing their own academic careers. They stay informed and continue to contribute as leaders within their niches. They believe intensely that their role is to provide real-world business teaching that students can rapidly apply to their jobs, careers, and companies.

Collaborative learning
The business practitioner as instructor tends to be more pragmatic and humble, and to see students as colleagues. They quickly develop a rapport, creating a collaborative learning atmosphere—not the traditional lecturer/demigod relationship that is the educational approach at most business schools today.

Hands-on teaching
Educators know that new skills are most easily adopted with hands-on learning. Practitioners assign projects that force students to immediately apply what they have learned in the classroom to their own business situations. This type of learning fills the gap between knowing and doing, which you see in too many MBA graduates.

So why is it that the successful executive as instructor—those with a graduate-level degree and strong teaching skills—remains the exception in top business schools?

Leck is Executive Vice President, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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