Professors’ Impact on the Real World

For many professors in leadership and organization studies-related fields,  a big part of our job is thinking seriously about how organizational leaders can address the world’s problems and opportunities. However, it’s fair to say that the for a good number of professors, the extent of their real world impact doesn’t go beyond an indirect impact through their teaching.

As a professor of an applied subject, a major driving force for me is to impact the world through my students…so I think this is a noble goal.  However, for many faculty in research universities, a significant percentage of our workload and a very large percentage of institutional rewards are geared toward research.

Given the importance of research in such institutions, we should assume that real-world impact is a goal.  This assumption is particularly valid in professionals fields like my own.

However, traditional rewards systems for research (at least in my field) are typically geared toward publication in academic journals.  In some cases, reaching a non-academic audience may be seen as a nice but unnecessary add-on…sort of icing on the cake.  But, it’s rarely rewarded or actively encouraged.

In my own case, I was actively discouraged by more than one senior colleague over the years to avoid attempting to make my work available to practitioner audiences.  The concern was that it would distract me from publication to academic audiences.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof’s column “Academics are some of the smartest minds in the world. So why are they making themselves irrelevant?” was right on in many ways.  It predictably resulted in some criticism among those who say he’s missed the mark for overgeneralizing.

Of course, there are exceptions both among individual faculty members and among some programs/universities where making a real-world impact through research is increasingly important.  I have many colleagues who are making a wonderful impact through their work.  I’ve always tried to as well, but know that I need to emphasize it even more in the coming years.

At the institution where I started my faculty career, I remember hearing my first year that “community engagement” was going to become a criterion included in the tenure/reward process…or at a minimum, something that would be actively encouraged.

I’m now in my sixth year (and currently being considered for promotion) and I heard two people announce this year that we’re considering expanding the tenure/reward policies to include community engagement.  I chuckled to myself because the information was presented as though it was new and novel.

In the end, I decided to try to balance the things I was most interested in:

  • Helping my students to make a difference in the world
  • Helping build a program that systematically set out to make a real-world impact
  • Doing research that I thought was important to the world
  • And attempting to disseminate that research to both academic and non-academic audiences.

In the case of the program that I lead for five years, I think we did a good job with finding a balance, but I still find myself striving to make more of a real-world impact through the research I do.  It’s easy to focus on “publishing for the sake of publishing.”  As I move to the next phase in my career, I really hope to do more action research, engage in more community partnerships, and disseminate more of my work to non-academic audiences.

So in short, I agree with Kristof.  I hope that faculty leaders and administrators around the country will, at a minimum, work to modify promotion/reward systems to recognize these efforts.

Original Column:  Professors, We Need You!
Follow-up on Kristof’s Blog: Bridging the Moat Around Universities

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