The Many Cultures of Academia

Recent experiences have caused me to think about contrasts among science, technology, business and policy programs in academia.  I have intensely interacted with these programs at over 50 universities in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.  My sense is that academia is an amalgam of many intellectual cultures, which do not dovetail nicely into one culture.  Academic disciplines share cafeterias and parking lots, but not values.

My career has been in science and technology.  I have served on the faculties of several top engineering programs, and been on advisory boards of many top programs.  My forays into science have primarily been in computer science and medicine, all at top programs.  The values of engineering and science differ a bit, but not compared to the difference with other professional domains.

I have interacted, sometimes in depth, with several top business schools.  MBA programs have in recent years dominated.  To this end, an easily digestible curriculum that is combined with great placement services, along with excellent lecturers, enabled by substantial tuitions, seem to be the elements of success.  Of late, data analytics has roared to center stage, requiring serious attention to analytical competencies.

I have been involved in public policy programs at several top programs.  These programs tend to offer a blend of government, economics, education, psychology, and sociology.  Masters of Public Policy degrees are pursued by those seeking to develop their talents for employment in public-private ecosystems.  I think policy is representative of behavioral and social sciences, broadly defined in include, for example, economics and public sector finances.

I hasten to note that I have ignored another prominent culture – law.  It is the fifth pillar of the typical cohort of professional degrees – medicine, law, business, policy and engineering.  However, I have not had sufficient exposure to law programs to be able to opine on them. 

Table 1 summarizes key contrasts among the academic disciplines thus far discussed.  These contrasts lead to further distinctions.  Teaching can be seen as a process of imparting knowledge versus mentoring competencies.  For the former, a faculty member serves as a Sage on Stage, while the latter leads to a faculty member being a Guide on the Side.

Sages need to pursue research that fosters their personal credentials.  Guides see research as being central to mentoring students towards professional success.  Professional Masters degree programs charge student premium tuitions.  Research-oriented graduate programs provide student stipends and tuition to join research teams.  For the former, investments and operational costs are funded by tuition revenues.  For the latter, resources are secured entrepreneurially.

These contrasts and distinctions are reinforced by several behavioral and social phenomena:

  • Faculty members tend to embrace the cultural values they experienced as graduate students, particularly if their graduate studies were successful
  • Faculty members tend to strongly extoll the values that earned them promotions, tenure, and coveted external rewards
  • Faculty members tend to question, and perhaps dismiss, people who do not embrace and advance the values they have embraced and extolled
  • These proclivities of faculty members are similar to those of religious clergy, athletic coaches, military veterans, and serious hobbyists

Thus, one cannot characterize the academic culture.  The differences among disciplines are enormous, ranging from how education is designed and delivered, how research is pursued and rewarded, and how resources are secured and managed.  Forays into any particular academic discipline is best conducted after gaining an understanding of the underlying cultural values of that discipline.  In a recent discussion during a planning meeting of another discipline, I commented to a colleague, “I feel like Margaret Mead in Samoa.”

 Science (Med. & Comp Sci)Technology (Engineering)Business (MBA Programs)Policy  (MPP Programs)
Sources of FundsGrants, Which Cover Stipends & TuitionsGrants & Contracts, Which Cover Stipends & TuitionsPremium Tuitions, Minimal Grants & ContractsPremium Tuitions, Minimal Grants & Contracts
Focus of  Graduate EducationResearch, Requisite Methods & ToolsResearch & Design, Requisite Methods & ToolsClassroom Lectures, Case Studies & ProjectsClassroom Lectures, Case Studies & Projects
Disciplinary RelationshipsImportant, But Not DominantImportant, But Not DominantVery Important & DominantVery Important & Dominant
Domain RelationshipsVery Important for Practice ImpactVery Important for Domain ImpactSomewhat ImportantSomewhat Important
Promotion & Tenure CriteriaArticles, Citations, PhD Graduates, Practice ImpactArticles, Citations, PhD Graduates, Domain ImpactArticles, Citations, Student RatingsBooks, Reviews, Media Quotes
Role of Students in Research OutcomesAbsolutely Central Contributors, Coauthors on Key PublicationsAbsolutely Central Contributors, Coauthors on Key PublicationsLimited Role of Students in Faculty Pursuit of PublicationsLimited Role of Students in Faculty Pursuit of Publications

Table 1. Key Contrasts Among Academic Disciplines

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