Why Hiring Non-Academics to Teach Entrepreneurship is a Bad Idea

Entrepreneurship education is often left to non-academic types however, most people don't learn well from examples in the absence of a conceptual framework.

These days, hiring non-academic instructors to teach entrepreneurship in graduate and undergraduate programs is a common strategy of university deans. When research faculty fail to get tenure or retire, they are often replaced with people who don’t, and can’t, do research.

This is a big strategic mistake. It contradicts much of what we know about how people learn, leads to negative selection and misses a huge pedagogical opportunity.

But before I make clear why this approach is fundamentally flawed, let me explain why it’s happening. Non-academics generally teach double the number of classes of research faculty — because they are not expected to produce new knowledge — and cost about half of what research faculty cost. The end results are class offerings that cost about one-quarter those of research faculty.

How People Learn

The first problem with the “replace-entrepreneurship-researchers-with-non-academics” approach is that it fails to take into account what decades of research has demonstrated about how people learn. Most people do not learn well by being shown examples in the absence of first being exposed to a conceptual framework. Conceptual frameworks — theories for why and how — provide a mental scaffold for the more fine-grained knowledge of specific contexts.

Because research faculty produce and test theories, they generally offer students these frameworks. By contrast, non-academics, who have not learned how to produce new knowledge, tend to tell “war stories.” Those war stories are often wildly entertaining, but they are generally not very good pedagogy. Studies show that student learning is much higher when research faculty teach students than when non-academics do.

Negative Selection

Most successful people are pretty busy. People who have built successful companies or who have backed those companies financially usually face a pretty high opportunity cost for spending time grading tests, talking to undergraduates about why their “girlfriends ate their homework” or explaining discounted cash flows for the fourth time.

This high opportunity cost means that the people universities can attract to teach six to eight entrepreneurship courses a year at a relatively low salary are generally not the people with the greatest practical expertise in entrepreneurship.

By contrast, teaching in universities appeals to people who want to produce new knowledge, and who have learned the process of producing that knowledge by getting a PhD. I can tell you from experience that such people do not like spending time grading tests, talking to undergraduates about why their “girlfriends ate their homework” or explaining discounted cash flows for the fourth time. We do it because that gives us the opportunity to produce new knowledge. As a result, universities tend to attract the best research-types and the worst non-academic types in entrepreneurship.

Missed Opportunities in Entrepreneurship Education

Hiring non-academics to teach entrepreneurship misses a huge pedagogical opportunity. Technological advance has made it possible for instructors to bring practitioner expertise into the classroom at virtually no cost by using video conferencing technology to connect experts to students in wired classrooms. Combining those practitioner examples with scholarly frameworks that have been developed and honed by the instructor’s research — something that research faculty can provide but non-academic instructors cannot — is very powerful.

Moreover, using practitioners as sources of information, rather than as instructors, provides students with the benefit of specialization. If multiple practitioners speak to a class, each focusing on his or her area of expertise, students receive a level of practitioner knowledge not possible with non-academic instructors. No non-academic instructor teaching entrepreneurship at my university (or any other one that I know of) has a knowledge of how an accelerator works equal to that of Paul Buchheit of Y-Combinator and a knowledge of equity crowdfunding equal to that of Ryan Feit of SeedInvest, both of whom speak to my entrepreneurial finance class about their respective topics.

Scholarly research has taught us that being the low cost producer isn’t always the best strategy, particularly when you are targeting high-end customers. Many university administrators appear to have missed this lesson. Maybe they should sit in on the entrepreneurship classes taught by their research faculty before they replace them all.

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