The Future of Scholarship

AACSB board chair Robert Sullivan discusses the forces reshaping business research.
The Future of Scholarship

These are exciting times for business school researchers. Changes within management education and the entire higher education system are opening up new fields of scholarship, outlets for publication, and ways to create impact.

For members of AACSB International, one driver of these changes will be the new accreditation standards, which AACSB approved in 2013 and will begin implementing this year. With the emphasis on mission and impact—and the new classifications of faculty—these standards will redefine what constitutes research, how it will be valued, and how schools will incentivize faculty.

But other changes are coming to university campuses, and they will bring with them their own effects on business research. We don’t know yet how far these effects will reach, but they could be dramatic.


AACSB’s new standards could change business research several ways. First, faculty categories have been expanded from two—academically qualified and professionally qualified—to four. Scholarly academics will still be expected to conduct disciplinebased research that’s published in academic journals. Conversely, practice academics are likely to work with industry on practical research. Scholarly practitioners are likely to publish intellectual contributions about new teaching methods and insights, whereas instructional practitioners will focus on bringing real-world experience to the classroom and will rarely publish.

At the same time, the new standards encourage schools to better define their missions, and that will clarify the type of research they consider important. If a school considers itself a research institution, its faculty will probably continue to publish in top-tier peer-reviewed discipline-based journals. But if a school is more focused on teaching, its professors might research teaching methodology; they might publish cases and textbooks instead of scholarly articles.

Therefore, the new standards will encourage faculty to conduct expanded types of research and publish it in broader outlets. In some cases, faculty who weren’t considered researchers before will—under the new standards— receive credit for conducting research.

There’s a third piece to the new standards that might be even more important in determining what kind of research is conducted and how it is recognized, and that’s impact. We must now question how we measure the impact of research. Does it motivate executives? Does it open the door for new types of research conducted by other scholars? That is, does it have practical or theoretical value?

In the past we’ve relied mostly on citations and counts to document impact, but it’s always been difficult to measure. But because the new standards are so focused on defining missions and recognizing impact, I think deans and faculty are going to give a lot of thought to who benefits from what we do. The new standards also present fresh opportunities for defining impact, because they recognize changes that are reshaping both the business school and the university.


Higher education is going through a tumultuous time. Online technology is enabling new kinds of course delivery, such as MOOCs. Alternate models such as the Minerva Project—in which students take classes online but travel the globe for experiential learning—are challenging our notion of the classroom. At the same time, the public sector and our own stakeholders are demanding both relevance and accountability from universities. Business schools have been among the first to grapple with these changes and demands, but the same forces will soon affect the rest of higher education.

As other schools on campus search for ways to retain relevance, more of them are moving into spaces that business schools have owned for a long time, such as entrepreneurship and innovation. Engineering schools are developing entrepreneurship centers; social sciences schools are setting up programs that for all practical purposes are the equivalent of MBAs.

How should business schools respond? We could say, “This is our territory and we’re going to fight for it.” Or we could partner with those other schools to turn out professional students who are ready to work. We could share what we know, which makes our programs even more relevant.

When we take the latter course, we have the chance to work with faculty in a wide range of other disciplines, including social psychology, economics, engineering, health sciences, and the arts and humanities. And when we work with other faculty, we open up new opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary research.

Today many governmental funding agencies—such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense—do support basic scholarship, but they also specify more than ever that it must have a translational element. These funding agencies want to know how the work ultimately will be applied. Translating research to the real world requires entrepreneurship skills and the ability to bring discoveries to market, and that’s knowledge the business school can supply.

Therefore, especially at research-oriented universities, I predict that an increasing number of faculty from other departments will partner with business faculty to conduct research and apply for grants and contracts. And as business professors work with faculty from engineering and environmental and psychology departments, they will change not only what kind of research they conduct, but also where they publish it.

Let me give some examples from my own institution, the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego. Along with UCLA and UC Irvine, we are competing for a piece of a US$150 million grant in the area of stem cell research. To win the grant, faculty need a very solid section that deals with how to translate the research to the real world, how to take the discovery to market, and how to conduct clinical trials. Business faculty can supply that information. Meanwhile, faculty at the Rady School recently conducted research about what occurs in emergency rooms. Looking at the ER as a job shop, they studied issues such as how the staff deals with patients and what level of satisfaction the patients feel. The resulting data was published in a journal about improving emergency room medicine.

Like the Rady faculty, business professors could soon be publishing in journals they’ve never considered before—if they embrace the rest of the campus and work across disciplines. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have expected business faculty to publish in Science or Nature. Today, we wouldn’t find it unusual.

In the past, business school faculty might not have been interested in publishing in non-business journals because such scholarship might not have helped them get tenure or promotions. But today, because the new standards emphasize impact, research will be accepted even when it appears in other professional journals— though to be clear, many of those publications are also peer-reviewed.

Today’s business research still needs to demonstrate impact, it just doesn’t have to be an impact on business. This latitude on where research is published inevitably gives faculty more liberty to pursue research in other areas of interest.


It might take a little time before we fully realize how much the new standards could affect the way business professors conduct research. And it might take time before business schools and other departments on campus develop fruitful partnerships. But the truth is, the nature of business education is changing. It’s being delivered in different formats, it’s reaching different students, and it’s being paired with many other disciplines. And as education changes, research must change as well.

Robert S. Sullivan is dean of the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and chair of the board of directors for AACSB International.