Needed: Academic Triathletes

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño

Professor Santiago Iniguez de Onzono is President, IE University, Spain.

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Santiago Iñiguez argues that what business schools need today is multi-faceted and well-rounded faculty.

When the Olympic Games were founded in Ancient Greece sometime during the eighth century BC, the king of sports was the Pentathlon. As its name suggests, competitors were required to show supreme skill in five areas: the long jump; javelin; discus throwing; the stadion (or 180-meter race); and wrestling.

Nobody is sure how the winner of the Pentathlon was established, perhaps by winning three events and doing well in two others. Whatever the method, whenever the Olympics came along, the winners of the Pentathlon were the new heroes. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, tells us that the participants in this sport were the most complete athletes and were honoured with medals and commemorative urns.

When it was decided to revive the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century, other combined sports were devised, aimed at measuring the overall athletic ability of participants and favouring in many ways the traditional amateur spirit of the Games. Contestants were not professional athletes nor were they usually specialists in a particular sport. Some of these multi-events have survived to this day, notably the Triathlon, made up of swimming, cycling, and running.

Translated to the world of business education, today’s academics might usefully be compared to the classical athletes, insomuch as they must show excellence in a number of fields. The academic race is essentially a Triathlon, made up of three main activities: research, teaching and involvement in the world of business – sometimes through consulting or by holding a management or board post.

However, success as an academic has traditionally been tantamount to excellence in research, period. Universities have conventionally selected, promoted, tenured and rewarded scholars who comply with certain requirements related to research activity and output.

Other facets of academic life such as teaching, the spreading of knowledge or interacting with the world outside universities have been considered as secondary activities for an academic career, sometimes even as “improper”

Nobody could reasonably deny the central value that research should play in scholarly careers. It is probably the core activity of the Academic Triathlon since it tests the capacity of the individual to assimilate existing knowledge and to generate new ideas, concepts and models, and at the same time respecting methodological rigor.

However, considering research as an end in itself or the only pure academic activity entails a myopic and incomplete version of the academic vocation.

Revealingly, an article in the New York Times described how a Harvard team formed by nine prominent professors of the university and supported by its former President, Derek Bok, was leading an effort to foster the culture of undergraduate teaching and learning.

For the full article, you can view the PDF

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