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Who Should be Teaching College?

August 17, 2013 by Ike Brannon

I left academia a decade ago, a departure originally intended to be a brief sabbatical until more interesting opportunities presented themselves.

A number of my friends seem inclined to go in the opposite direction: After having made significant accomplishments in their profession, they want to give something back to their profession and community by joining academia. And to a person, my friends with this ambition have a lot to give, namely keen minds and a wealth of experience that is exceptionally relevant to their fields.

The only problem they face is that they lack terminal degrees in their field. These days most universities feel obligated to hire professors with Ph.D.s, a compulsion driven partly by the accreditation bodies and partly due to the fact that the various entities that publish university rankings penalize schools for having too many teachers without the degree.

In some places (like my current home of Washington, D.C.) this requirement is a trifle: The city is lousy with Ph.D.s in all sorts of fields willing to teach for a pittance. But in most places that is not necessarily the case. 

And it’s doubtless true that for some disciplines there is no substitute for the years of academic training that people receive in graduate school. But in other disciplines — such as economics (my own field) or other business-related fields, a Ph.D. is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an exceptional professor.

In fact, a couple decades of experience would be much better preparation for a business professor than the four to six years of often-tedious academic training, much of which is irrelevant to any discussion that would occur in an undergraduate classroom, which earning a Ph.D. necessitates.

But most communities have a wealth of people with the background and acumen that would make them great professors. Some of these people already do teach a class or two. Making it easier for these people to devote themselves full-time to academia would be an unmitigated boon for students both here and at universities across the nation.

The credentialism of academia stems in part from well-intentioned efforts to improve the professionalism of academia, but it is a too-blunt tool that hurts universities in very real ways.

Ideally, a university’s faculty would be a mix of people with practical experience as well as in-depth academic training. In such a setting, students could have the best of both worlds, being informed by the practical experience of the business community while also learning from the traditional academician.

This part of the article is usually reserved for a pithy policy remedy, but I’m not sure that there is one, other than to plead with the various university accreditation bodies to reduce their emphasis on the Ph.D., with prospective college students and their parents to put less stock in the various college guides, and with college administrators to take a risk and put more people with a career’s worth of experience and wisdom into the classroom.

It’s hard to see who would lose from such an arrangement.

Ike Brannon is a Senior Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and President of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.


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Ike Brannon
Ike Brannon

Ike Brannon served as an Economic Growth Fellow of the George W. Bush Institute from 2012 to 2015. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Indiana University and a B.A. in math, Spanish, and economics from Augustana College. View his full bio

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