Professionally Speaking

The benefits of integrating professionally oriented faculty into the business school's culture.

During faculty workshops at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana, it’s not just academics who are exchanging perspectives on new research. Practitioners also are involved in the discussion. In fact, academ­ics often call on professionally oriented faculty (POF)—or what Mendoza calls “special professional faculty”—to challenge their study design, explain perplex­ing results, and offer guidance on ways to refine their research questions.

Mendoza, where approximately 30 percent of the faculty are POF, is one of a growing number of business schools that view practitioners as a truly valued resource. It’s a resource that’s too often left untapped in academia, says H. Fred Mittelstaedt, department chair of Mendoza’s accounting department.

“Some institutions have a caste system, where full professors treat asso­ciate professors badly, and associate professors treat assistant professors badly. In that type of environment, you can imagine how teaching professors are viewed. But professional faculty have a deep expertise that academics don’t,” he says. “They inform our research so that what we’re doing will have more practical benefits. Their perspective keeps us grounded.”

By turning to practitioners early in the research process, academics also can reduce the number of times their papers are rejected by scholarly journals, says Frank Buckless, head of the accounting department at North Carolina State Uni­versity’s Poole College of Management in Raleigh. “One of the primary reasons research is rejected is that the question it explores isn’t viewed as important enough,” says Buckless. But just one chat with a practitioner can turn a study around. “Why wait to present research when the study’s done? Let’s have a brown-bag lunch and develop a good question and design a good study before we try to execute it,” he says.

Both Poole and Mendoza have committed to the Pathways Commission’s Professionally Oriented Faculty Integration Principles, under which the contri­butions of professional and academic faculty are valued and rewarded equally. Where professors who classify as scholarly academics under AACSB’s 2013 accreditation standards are most recognized for their peer-reviewed publi­cations and conference presentations, those who classify as instructional practitioners are most often recognized for their teaching, textbook writing, contributions to curriculum design, and publication in practitioner journals. All are recognized for other impactful contributions, such as quotes in the press or testimony before U.S. Congress.

At Mendoza, POF are eligible for promotions to assistant, associate, and full professor positions, as well as profes­sional development opportunities and pension and tuition benefits, just like tenure-track faculty. At Poole, where prac­titioners account for about 30 percent of the faculty, POF are evaluated using the same process as academic faculty. “Each year, we ask all faculty to outline what their goals for the year are. In return, we outline how we can support them in those goals,” says Buckless.

Buckless and Mittelstaedt point out that when POF are fully integrated into a business school’s culture, they offer substantial benefits to the entire academic community:

They round out research. As noted, practitioners can help academics work through preliminary study results they might not understand and help them view their research in new ways.

They teach practice-based courses. In accounting, these courses include financial reporting, auditing, tax, business law, and accounting ethics—all topics where academics might not have deep expertise. POF often bring more casework and real-world problems into their classes, and they also focus more on teaching high-level skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication, “be­cause that’s what they’ve lived in the business world,” says Buckless.

They offer knowledge not found in textbooks. When students in one of Mittelstaedt’s MBA classes had a question related to derivatives in the 2000s, he turned to a member of Mendoza’s pro­fessional faculty who had lived through that time. “It was a historical question, with an answer that couldn’t be looked up easily,” says Mit­telstaedt. “Most professors haven’t been exposed to these issues.”

They handle administrative work. POF often assume duties related to accreditation and assurance of learning—tasks that other­wise could consume the hours of research-based faculty.

They support outreach. At Mendoza, this benefit translates into activities with a social focus such as a program that provides tax assistance to low-income populations. POF are heavily involved in this program, which makes a demonstrable, positive impact on the community, says Mittelstaedt. At Poole, a group of academic and pro­fessional faculty work together to help companies develop systems for evaluating and improving their sustainable business practices. “Companies now are adopting the methodologies that we developed, and we’re getting good press,” says Buckless. “Business schools need to do more of these types of projects.”

They support student activities. Professional faculty can advise student organizations, help students prepare for exams, and act as mentors, all through the lens of real-world experience. “It’s difficult for tenure-track faculty to find the time for that kind of work,” says Mittelstaedt.

They publish in nonacademic journals. Many scholarly ac­ademics do not have the skills—or sometimes the will—to publish in journals dedicated to topics such as education, ethics, and law. These are disciplinary areas where the student- and teaching-oriented focus of POF is an advantage.

They contribute to grant procurement. The links that POF have to large corporations often help lay the framework for research projects that are attractive to grant-making agencies. At the Poole Col­lege, that translates into US$500,000 to $1 million in grants annually.

Both Buckless and Mittelstaedt admit that the Pathways Commis­sions’ principles aligned with cultures that already had existed at their schools. But committing to the principles encouraged both schools to more clearly define and policies regarding POF, an important first step in any business school’s plan to integrate practice-based faculty more fully into its programs. Administrators who want to follow a sim­ilar path also might first refer to their universities’ existing policies for working with professional faculty, which could limit what their schools can do. They might even find that their universities don’t have good systems in place for handling professional faculty. In either case, it might be up to the business school to advocate for POF. “Try to get the infrastructure built, if it doesn’t exist already,” Mittelstaedt says.

Finally, it’s important to create an institutional culture that celebrates both professional and academic contributions. “Adminis­trators need to set the right tone from the top, and they need to com­municate clearly that everybody’s valued and everybody’s making a contribution,” says Buckless. Business schools can accomplish this by creating opportunities for professional and academic faculty to interact at meetings, workshops, dinners, and retreats. It also helps if schools introduce new faculty members to this aspect of the mission and culture during their orientation—and better yet, hire faculty who are comfortable working on both sides of theory and practice.

“It’s important that everyone treats each other with respect,” Mit­telstaedt emphasizes. “You need to build a culture based more on the value of your mission and less on where faculty got their degrees or what they’re teaching. Everyone needs to recognize that each person is contributing something important and that all faculty must work together, if your school is to deliver on its mission.”

Buckless agrees that achieving the business school’s mission is the ultimate goal. “No matter what we do, we want to have three outcomes: We want to engage our students, we want to engage our faculty, and we want to engage the business world. Professionally oriented faculty can help in all three areas.