Why Must Professors Publish?

A few weeks ago, I received a flattering email from one of my MBA students.  After an engaging class session, this student had gone home, Googled me, and then spent several hours reading “all of my essays” that he could find online.

Aside from one doctoral student who requested more information about one of my journal articles, I’ve never had any other student express interest in my academic research.

Before I bite the hand that feeds me, I must say that I have nothing against scholarship. It’s just that I have a love/hate relationship with the type of scholarship that professors, including professors in my field of management, are supposed to publish—and I’m not the only one, either

I have been told by colleagues that I should spend less time writing for the Pope Center, the National Association of Scholars, and Phi Beta Cons. My blogging and essay-writing did nothing to increase my standing as an academic, my colleagues said—even though one of my first ever essays (on students taking a gap year) led to an hour-long interview on National Public Radio.

Apparently, the dictum is that I need to spend more time producing work that no one will read, and less time on work that people will. Oh, the irony.

Quite frankly, when I poll my classes on their knowledge of professors’ scholarship, most students admit they had no idea their professors did anything other than teach. Some acknowledge that they know professors perform “research,” but they only alluded to it in vague terms.

Before I stepped into the academic world, my views were the same as the majority of my students. 

Ten years ago, I naively entered a Ph.D. program in a Florida school with the goal of teaching at the college level when I had finished. This first foray into a doctoral degree ended after six weeks, because I thought the management theory I was studying was a bunch of gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand why scholars would assert ideas with pages upon pages of unreadable prose when a concise paragraph or two would suffice. I once saw a 50-page study provide evidence for the effects of alcohol consumption on someone’s perceived intelligence level. Thomas Paine took far fewer pages to lay out the case for American independence.

In that program, doctoral students were to teach as little as possible in order to focus on “scholarly pursuits.” That is quite common.  I eventually settled in at a doctoral program at Temple University one that let me engage in the “risky” action of actually teaching a course or two per semester.

As a business school professor, I live with the reality that (at best) only a handful of academics will read the type of articles I am expected to publish.  Successful businesspeople are far more likely to cite Covey’s  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as an influential read than anything published in a journal on management. 

“The International Quarterly Journal of Management Pursuits” (name changed to protect my career) may have studies that reach the same conclusion as Covey’s thoughts and anecdotes, but that package has too much unnecessary wrapping for busy managers to open.

Moreover, producing such work requires years to get into press, thus taking time away from more meaningful teaching and writing pursuits.

To take this point a step further, how much ground-breaking research do management scholars really need to produce? The entire discipline can be replaced by the careful study of a few timeless works: the classic Chinese Art of War by Sun-Tzu, Baltazar Gracian’s seventeenth-century Art of Worldly Wisdom, the Bible, and a few others. Much as management professors may think otherwise, strategic planning and employee motivation are not twentieth-century, Ivory Tower discoveries.

How I wish that I could spend more time studying those texts in order to share their relevance to leadership and management. Many of my first-generation students would actually enjoy deciphering and applying such work. Engaging undergraduates is not always easy, especially business students who are just in school for the credential. Yet, I’ve had rewarding discussions with students regarding their interpretations of Sun-Tzu’s “All warfare is based on deception and Gracian’s maxim that “there is no higher rule than that over oneself, over one’s impulses; there is the triumph of free will.”

It’s amazing what can happen when students are challenged to think about what an author is saying and to personally apply that author’s advice. Imagine how we’d encourage the love of learning if we did more of that.

But among my peers, if I were known for my quality interpretations of how these classic texts translate into modern management practices, the only rub I’d get would be a bump in my own job satisfaction. Weigh that against the possibility that I could be denied tenure if my cv’s publication section isn’t weighty enough.

That “pubs” section as nothing more than an academic bodybuilding contest. I know. In my previous identity as a personal trainer, there was a saying about lifting for vanity: “It’s not how much you lift, it’s how much you look like you lift.” 

That logic often applies to a scholar’s productivity. Journal articles are written for other academics as a way of flexing muscles. It’s not how meaningful your work is, but just how bulky your cv looks.  

I’m rarely evaluated on what I wrote, but only on how many peer-reviewed published articles I completed. (I doubt that the evaluators actually read the articles.) It’s hard to spend so much time writing papers that have such little benefit beyond my own vita.

What’s wrong with the novel idea of letting bright, passionate professors disseminate knowledge and wisdom to students instead of researching topics where common sense already tells us the answer? After all, isn’t “profess” the root of professor?

To go out on a limb, I would happily teach five classes (as opposed to three) per semester if publications were banished from my performance appraisals. I’d even increase my “service” (e.g., student advising, professional organization leadership) activity. While I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I suspect that many of my peers who love teaching feel the same way.