How an academic is not a business executive

At times of increasing entrepreneurialism in universities, when budget pressures drive higher education administrators to press professors to think and act more like business executives, it may be of some use to remind ourselves of the various ways in which the vocation and career path of the academic depart from those of the business executive.

March 15, 2011

At times of increasing entrepreneurialism in universities, when budget pressures drive higher education administrators to press professors to think and act more like business executives, it may be of some use to remind ourselves of the various ways in which the vocation and career path of the academic depart from those of the business executive.

In effect, as institutions of higher education are required by governments worldwide to become less dependent on public funding and more attuned to the private sector’s demand for services like research, training, certification, consulting, and the like, those who do the research, training, certification and consulting bear the brunt of the servicing of these clients, assisted (and prodded) by specialized university liaison offices.

Undoubtedly some academics are also shrewd business persons when it comes to profitably linking their research or consulting work to the needs of industry. Moreover, university governance and management have become increasingly attuned to the language, knowledge base, practices, and goals of the corporate world. Yet the combination of the two orientations in one person remains rather exceptional, as the training and nature of the job of the typical denizen of the university differs considerably from that of the corporate citizen.

Though obviously in broad strokes, I will argue that there are four major disparities setting academics and business executives apart: their sources of professional recognition, the targets of their work efforts, their relationships with competing organizations, and the degree of homogeneity of the task across organizations.

There are, certainly, other salient differences: for instance, the power of superiors to govern the behavior of subordinates (much greater in corporations), the diverse form and function of internal politics (more collectivistic, group-based in universities), or their time-frame orientations (yearly results much more critical in corporations than in universities). But those pertain more to the nature of the organizations, while my focus here is on the characteristics of the professions of the academic and the business executive.

What follows are stylized renderings of the work culture of research academics, who albeit are not the majority of the professoriate around the world, nonetheless set the standards for the aspirations of the whole profession. In the case of business executives, I refer not to founders and owners, but to salaried managers who run the functional or territorial divisions of a company.

Just as universities measure their organizational success in terms of prestige (the collective opinion of authoritative others), so do professors gauge theirs on the basis of peer recognition. The opinions of the fellow experts in a field, expressed in publication decisions, citations, invitations to lecture, professional awards, book reviews, and the like, give shape to the professor’s charisma in her field. On the other hand, business firms evaluate their success according to their bottom lines, and their executives’ performance is assessed and rewarded according to their direct or indirect contributions to those financial results.

This is not to say that academics don’t care about money, or that executives are immune to the opinions of their professional colleagues. All responsible professionals seek to do a good job and be recognized—and rewarded—for excellence in their work. I do not seek to account for motivations here. My point is that different indicators signal the rank of an academic and of a business executive within their relevant communities. For professors it is chiefly peer recognition, while for business executives it is salary and other compensation benefits.

Different measures of success entail diverse target audiences: while researchers seek to impress their peers globally, i.e., fellow specialists who mostly work for other universities. The business executive strives for the acknowledgment of her superior or, if she is more ambitious and has her bosses’ job in sight, the recognition of her boss’s supervisor. As a result, top rung academics are not as committed to the daily quest for internal visibility and prominence within the organization that occupies so much of the time of the corporate officer.

As a result of these variations in goals, the position of an academic vis à vis organizations other than his employer’s is quite different from that of the business executive. While the former may collaborate freely with his knowledge, time, and effort, with initiatives or projects (books, seminars, research centers) launched or administered from a university not his own, such collaborative behavior towards a possible competitor on the part of an executive would be viewed with suspicion, if not deemed outright unacceptable, as it may involve trade secrets or use of privileged information. Of course, these days researchers working in potentially lucrative projects may face intellectual property restrictions affecting the publicity of their work, and myriad joint ventures exist that set corporations in a collaborative path. But it is still an exception that would oblige a professor to go through the legal department before working with colleagues outside his or her institution, while no executive would embark on collaborative work with counterparts at another company without a legal contract.

Finally, the basic components of an academic’s job are highly portable from one university to another, much more than those of a business executive. In effect, even if an executive moves from a position in a company to the same position in another company there are significant aspects of her new job that will be unique to the new company, that she has to learn to become fully productive. On the other hand, in the case of academic positions the components of the job unique to a single place are generally marginal to the job description, and productivity suffers little from changes in workplace.

With respect to the organizations professors and executives work for, these distinct features of the two professions—some of them more a matter of degree than of essence, of course—tend to define the research professor as an outward-oriented profession, with a sphere of interest and influence beyond the place of employment, while generally business managers focus instead on the inside of their companies for professional fulfillment and advancement.


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