Research at Risk

Business schools often cut corners in their research programs—but at what cost?

The typical business school dean faces a perplexing dilemma. Confronted with faculty shortages, rising student and alumni expectations, increasing technology demands, escalating costs associated with playing the rankings game, and competition from academic and business markets for faculty and students, the responsive dean must analyze the cost structure of all programs and activities in the school. From a cost-benefit perspective, the doctoral program is one of the most expensive programs in the school to run and one of the most difficult to fund. Furthermore, given that there is no media hype surrounding doctoral programs, a dean’s first reaction is often to decrease the size of the doctoral program and shift those resources to the MBA program.

This reaction seems even further justified by those who criticize one of the main products of doctoral programs in business disciplines—research. Many on campus believe research is too applied and adds little to a fundamental body of knowledge; conversely, some off campus believe that it is too theoretical and has little “real-world” application. Faced with the significant cost of research and prominent criticisms, many deans have been hard-pressed to defend the expense of doctoral programs.

Unfortunately, the shift away from doctoral education and fundamental research now poses a significant threat to the quality of business schools. Intense competitive pressures already have caused doctoral programs to shrink; and as the shortage of faculty intensifies, only the most heavily endowed schools with the best support structures for research can afford the top candidates. Then, these top schools often use public schools in the same ways that major league professional baseball teams use the minor leagues. First, they pass on the “diamonds in the rough” to the publics, letting them train these students for three to five years. Then, they recruit this newly trained talent, attracting these individuals with minimal teaching loads and high salaries.

The result is that, over time, the lion’s share of top research will be conducted at fewer and fewer schools. The vibrancy of faculty at other programs and the overall quality of these learning environments will diminish. The number of doctoral programs will continue to dwindle, so that the quality across the board suffers.

However, effective deans can justify the cost of a doctoral program and respond to critics in several ways. Understanding and communicating at least four key points are essential:

  1. By its very nature, fundamental research seeks to discover knowledge where the exact direction, or sometimes even the exact relevance, is initially unclear. Throughout history, breakthrough discoveries have occurred when the researcher was initially searching for something completely different. Supporting fundamental research creates an environment where researchers take risks and, as a result, advance the field in unexpected yet crucial ways.
  2. Those who argue against the relevance of fundamental research often cite the layperson’s frustration in reading complex, often esoteric articles in current academic journals. However, the application of any research takes refinement. Take, for example, the Capital Asset Pricing Model. In the 1960s, this model seemed a messy, mathematical construct with little “real-world” application; but within a decade, this model became standard, applied practice in the business community. All of the core concepts of marketing have derived from a body of articles originally published in academic journals.
  3. Schools should form partnerships within the business community to carry out specific research projects. Such projects could involve a team comprising faculty members, students, and corporate researchers. Externally supported research, sponsored by companies or government agencies, is a good indicator of its societal value.
  4. Even those external constituents who believe in the importance of fundamental research often see an overemphasis on research, to the detriment of teaching. In this case, a dean needs to emphasize the strong compatibility and correlation among excellent research, excellent teaching, and exceptional students. Students who work on projects with research faculty will be more prepared to think creatively and analytically. Individuals with this critical skill are sought out by companies—as well as by management education institutions.

But these individuals are becoming, in essence, an endangered species. Between 1992 and 1998, the number of business doctorates produced in the United States fell by more than 18 percent, from 1,231 to 1,006. And even as the number of doctorates continues to decrease, the fact remains that vibrant faculty members, actively engaged in research and in the synthesis and dissemination of knowledge in their discipline, are characteristic of every top business program. The inescapable truth is that one cannot have a top program without a research-oriented faculty, one supplied by a quickly dwindling number of doctoral graduates. Although recruiting top faculty is increasingly costly, the amount spent on faculty is the price required to compete in the business school market.

Doctorate-producing public business schools worldwide face a formidable task. They must maintain the strength of their faculty and their doctoral programs in the face of increasing costs and constant media emphasis on MBA programs. If they do not succeed, all business schools risk a downward spiral in quality—in their teaching, their research, and, eventually, in their students.

The best strategy for business schools is to set and maintain high standards for research, promotion, and tenure. Faculty members across campus will be won over by high quality research in business. Quality in fundamental research in business disciplines will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To make it happen, business schools must view their doctoral programs not as areas to cut costs, but as vital sources of research and promotion of a school’s contributions to the field.

Former dean of the business school at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, Andrew J. Policano now serves as UWM’s Kuechenmeister Professor of Business.