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Junior Professor Criticizes HBS Through Blog

By Daniel J. Hemel, Crimson Staff Writer

A junior faculty member at Harvard Business School (HBS) is using his popular weblog to sound a warning that the school’s prestige is in jeopardy, but HBS faculty and staff vigorously dispute his claim.

Associate Professor of Business Management Michael D. Watkins says the quality of education at HBS is on the decline due in part to University President Lawrence H. Summers’ increased meddling in the school’s promotion process.

According to a Mass. Hall spokesperson, a 2002 vote by the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers gave Summers veto power over promotions at all of the University’s schools, including HBS.

The boards instructed Summers to use “some variation of the so-called ad hoc system,” in which academics from outside HBS advise the president on promotions, the spokesperson says.

Watkins, who failed to secure a tenured professorship last fall, says the outsiders largely ignore the field-based case studies that lie at the heart of the school’s innovative teaching method.

These field-based studies form the core of HBS’s case method system, which uses real-life examples to spur classroom discussion on management issues.

Field-based studies offer immeasurable advantages over library-centered cases, says Shad Professor of Business Ethics Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.

“It’s the difference between getting inside an organization using your judgement over reading something that’s been filtered through the eyes of journalists,” says Badaracco, who is also Currier House Master.

But Watkins claims the incentives otivating HBS junior faculty to engage in course development—especially labor-intensive field-based studies—are evaporating now that academics from outside the school hold sway over the promotion process.

“Now place yourself in the position of a young tenure track faculty member at HBS,” Watkins says. “As a rational actor playing a high stakes game, how would you respond to a realization that the rules of the game have changed?”

Watkins says on his weblog that junior faculty are focusing on writing for prestigious peer-reviewed publications instead of developing the field-based cases “that outside scholars view as something lower than the lowest-class journal articles.”

But James E. Aisner ’68, director of media relations at HBS, says teaching and course development, including field-based work, still figure prominently in the promotion process.

He says that much of the promotion review process still occurs inside HBS, with the school’s entire senior faculty weighing in before Dean Kim B. Clark ’74 issues a recommendation to Summers.

Fuzzy Math

Watkins’ weblog highlights statistics indicating that junior faculty are devoting less time to field-based studies and more effort to the academic research likely to impress outside experts.

The shift “sounds the death knell for [the school’s] delicate experiment in bridging theory and practice,” Watkins says.

But HBS officials strongly reject Watkins’ argument that the school’s junior faculty have shirked their course development duties.

HBS’s own analysis, according to Aisner, casts doubt on the data Watkins uses to bolster his arguments.

Watkins writes in an e-mail that field-based studies accounted for 74 percent of all HBS cases two years ago—but only 57 percent of cases developed in recent months. Instead, he says, an increasing percentage of new cases come from less labor-intensive library research.

But a study by Michael J. Roberts ’79, the executive director for case development at HBS, reveals that the percentage of field-based cases has remained constant at roughly 73 percent for the last decade.

Watkins uses data directly from the HBS website, which displays cases that are for sale to other business schools.

The school keeps some of its most recent field-based cases off the market until they have been test-run through HBS classrooms, so online data from recent months show artificially low numbers of field-based cases, Aisner says.

Badaracco says he has seen no decline in the development of field-based cases at HBS in recent years.

“If I look at my colleagues, they’re running around writing tons of field- based studies,” he says.

Breaking Convention

Though Watkins is a specialist on diplomacy, fellow HBS faculty say he is burning bridges at the school that has employed him since 1996.

“This may well cost me some future options, but I’m willing to take that risk,” Watkins says. “Someone has to be willing to do it.”

Junior faculty at HBS declined to speak on the record with The Crimson.

“The fact that untenured faculty are so reluctant to talk is, I think, significant in its own right,” Watkins says. “Even if they are denied tenure, they are dependent on recommendations and other good offices from faculty at HBS to secure another position, ”

But assistant and associate professors who spoke to The Crimson on background say they are dubious of Watkins’ conclusions.

One junior faculty member says his field-based course development work will significantly strengthen his prospects for promotion when he is considered for an associate professorship this summer.

Docking junior faculty who focus on case studies, he says, “would be like the Red Sox penalizing people for getting hits.”

Another junior faculty member says his course development work helped him win a promotion to an associate professorship. The same professor says he has since focused less attention on case studies—a factor he says could, if anything, work against him in his bid for a tenured position.

But one junior faculty member notes that few business schools other than HBS consider case work to be a critical factor in tenure decisions. He says his research for academic journals will count far more than his field-based course development if he seeks a senior professorship outside of HBS.

A Web of Accusation

Watkins’ weblog, “World Events on Weekdays,” typically focuses on political issues, taking aim at the Bush administration officials and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.

But he says his initial post on HBS tenure in January has drawn nearly 5,000 visits to his weblog, which is hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

Watkins says that at first his ruminations on the promotion process were “just a way of venting a bit of steam.”

“I was quite surprised by the extent to which it began to take off,” he says.

Watkins says he is “not a rabble rouser,” but is “genuinely concerned about the institution.”

“My biggest concern is that I will be seen as trying to reverse the course of my tenure decision,” he says. “This is not the case.”

Watkins’ own tenure bid never reached the president’s desk, the Mass. Hall spokesperson says.

But Watkins says he is not concerned about the possible repercussions of his dissent on future job prospects.

“I also have good [job] options other than academic ones,” he says.

In September, HBS Press published Watkins’ The First 90 Days: Critical Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, which is currently at number one on the management best seller list of the Toronto-based Books for Business, the world’s largest business bookstore.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

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