Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Academic/Business Divide

At a meeting with an old friend a few months ago, we found ourselves on opposite sides of a divide that I didn't even know I entertained; that of "academics versus business". It sparked what has been a period of pondering on what does it really mean to be an academic, and is that different to being a business person... and am I now an academic?

I had all this fluff wafting around in my head about integrity, objectivity, freedom, learning, teaching, research, exploration, theory to practice, thin-slice experts, boffins, ivory towers, tenure and so on, but no real idea as to what all that puffery added up to.

Of course, what I did immediately was to google "What is an Academic?". But for once, Dr Google was almost wilfully unhelpful.

Dr Google abandoned, I then I headed off to Google Scholar (Professor Google) and the databases. Nixon, Beattie, Challis & Walker (1998) had some pearls: "each of us—as a shared, contested concern—is the moral authority [by which...] we teach and enquire" (p. 278) and Nixon's own view that academics provide freedom for others by ensuring they "have the responsibility to speak their own minds, to learn in accordance with their own interests, and to enjoy a secure framework within which to learn" (p. 278).

For me it started to get really interesting when Nixon said that academics "protect the interests of [their] occupational group [which] espouses and, at best, practises supremely important values—intellectual honesty, scholastic rigour, self-examination, respect for divergent views, etc" (p. 279). Nixon went on to talk about having a primary teaching relationship, research, professional development and - interestingly - being ethical; "ensuring openness and transparency in our professional dealings with one another" (p. 283).

Beattie explored the idea that "academic professionalism is understood as responsibility. It is grounded in relationships with students, research participants, and colleagues, and position's learning [...] at the heart of the academic endeavour" (p. 384). Challis also stated that academic lecturers generally "consider the interests and aptitudes of the individual learners to be of paramount importance" (p. 290) and perhaps should consider themselves to be "academic 'educationists', who are up to date with current trends in teaching and learning" through on-going best-practice professional development (p. 290).

There is also this issue of independence. When you work for a company, it is assumed that you can't be an academic, because you are being paid to prioritise corporate interests and goals. Danah Boyd (25 August 2009) tackled this in her blog post asking "Am I an Academic?" because she had left her Uni research post and started work for Microsoft. She felt that she remained an academic, despite being paid by a commercial venture, arguing that universities are largely property barons with a monopoly on learning. While I respect her point of view, I still have the sneaking suspicion that independence comes more from being paid by the community, for the community, and that perhaps private US educators aren't really 'pure' academics... hmm.

Further regarding the public/private debate, we have an additional complication with the dirty-boots brigade - the applied learning sector. The 'tradies', where I teach. There is a wonderful cloud of perceived snobbery between Unis and Polytechnics where it is assumed that academia would have to be at a pretty low ebb to include Polytech lecturers as academics. However, in applying Nixon's ideas of that primary teaching relationship, research that contributes to their profession, personal development, ethics, learner focus and teaching expertise, I would say that those lecturers with whom I work are largely true academics.

They, like their state-funded Uni compadr├ęs, are also finding it hard to reconcile the understandable cuts that are being forced on them by governments in order to balance the public purse in these times. There is an enormous tension between teaching best-practice and getting the numbers through, between objectivity and expenditure, that rests uneasily with those who teach.

Here in New Zealand, budgets are being trimmed continuously. I know of two long-serving lecturers who have gone on stress leave: one took early retirement, once came back after several weeks off. Both felt there was enormous pressure to teach in what they saw as in an expeditious way, in order to achieve government markers, which was not what they felt they should do as 'academics'.

Whether their view is accurate or not, it brings me back to this core question of what an academic is. There is obviously a lot of principle involved, as many academics find they are broken on the wheel of their own principles.

So what is this area of principle? Part of it is the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself (although this has been seriously eroded by funding constraints), part of it is academic rigour - honestly developed, fairly attributed, expert-drawn, rational and balanced argument - and a large chunk is this is focusing on what is best for the learner. Boy, the latter is a can of worms.

Trying to get to what makes for effective teaching is something that I am currently studying, and it is hard to find sensible data out there. We know it when we see it; but measuring it? That's another thing entirely!

So how is this different from being a business person? The duty we have when working for a corporate is both to our organisation's and to our professions; we will each have our own principles, but while we should make rational and objective decisions, no one minds too much if we get subjective from time to time. But there is a difference.

Weick cited John Gardener (1968, p. 90, as cited in 2002, p. S71) who felt that learning institutions stand "for things that are forgotten in the heat of battle, for values that get pushed aside in the rough-and-tumble of every day living, for goals we ought to be thinking about and never do, for the facts that we don't like to face, and the questions we lack the courage to ask". Wow. Big responsibilities, in a stewardship role for society.

I suspect that an academic is someone who is principled and concerned with fair, objective and rational evaluations of students. They focus on teaching, using best practice. Can we then say that an academic is an honest, objective and independent professional who takes responsibility for delivering best practice teaching and research that will facilitate student, the education sector and the community's on-going learning ...?

I would be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.


  • Barcan, Ruth (Sept 1996). The Body of the (Humanities) Academic, or, "What is an Academic". Australian Humanities Review, September/November 1996. Retrieved 20 September 2012 from
  • Boyd, Danah (25 August 2009). Am I an academic?. Retrieved 26 September 2012 from
  • Dittmann, J. Paul Ph.D (2008). Bridging the gulf between business and academia. Retrieved 20 September 2012 from
  • Karlsson, Jan; Booth, Shirley & Odenrick, Per (2007). Academics' Strategies and Obstacles in Achieving Collaboration between Universities and SMEs. Tertiary Education and Management, 2007, Volume 13, issue 3 (pp. 187-201).
  • Nixon, Jon; Beattie, Mary; Challis, Maggie & Walker, Melanie (1998). What Does it Mean to be an Academic? A Colloquium. Teaching in Higher Education, 1998, Volume 3 issue 3 (pp. 277-298)
  • Rynes, Sara L.; Bartunek, Jean M., & Daft, Richard L. (2001). Across the great divide: Knowledge creation and transfer between practitioners and academics. Academy of Management Journal, Apr 2001, Volume 44, issue 2(pp. 340-355)
  • Weick, Karl E. (2001). Gapping the Relevance Bridge: Fashions Meet Fundamentals in Management Research. British Journal of Management, December 2001, Volume 12, Issue Supplement s1 (pp. S71-S75)

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