The four pillars of a business school

American Journal of Business

ISSN: 1935-5181

Article publication date: 28 October 2011



Palan, K. (2011), "The four pillars of a business school", American Journal of Business, Vol. 26 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The four pillars of a business school

Article Type: The four pillars of a business school From: American Journal of Business, Volume 26, Issue 2

Kay PalanHaworth College of Business, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

All of us have sat in lectures, seminars, or discussions where the three-legged stool is used as a metaphor for the catastrophe that ensues when one leg is shorter than the others or even (gasp!) missing. The message is clear: keep the legs in balance to be most effective. One of my earliest recollections of my business education was a favorite professor talking about the three “legs” of a university: creating and advancing knowledge (i.e. research), warehousing knowledge (i.e. libraries), and disseminating knowledge (i.e. teaching). We might not all agree with those particular three legs, but his point, of course, was that a university could not accomplish its purpose if any of these legs was weak. His three-legged metaphor stimulated strategic thinking to how universities are structured to accomplish their missions.

Is there an analogous metaphor for business schools? And, if so, what are the legs or pillars of a business school that, when kept in balance, enable us to be most effective? Below, I propose that there are four fundamental pillars of a business school – teaching, research, outreach and engagement with external constituents, and outreach and engagement with university constituents.

Pillar 1: to disseminate knowledge

Without a doubt, the primary reason a business school exists is to educate and prepare individuals for professional business careers. All business schools have mission statements and strategic plans that address this pillar – we may state it in slightly different ways, but the intent is the same. We deploy our resources and energies to provide relevant and current knowledge and to teach skills to undergraduate and graduate students. Business schools provide solid grounding across the basic business disciplines, and to varying degrees, specialized niche programs. Disseminating knowledge, of course, goes beyond the academic boundaries of the classroom. We extend teaching and mentoring to extracurricular activities such as student organizations, business honor societies, and student competitions. We help students develop professional skills by providing career development opportunities. Moreover, we take accountability for our teaching activities through our assurance of learning programs.

Although the primary focus of teaching is business students, business colleges disseminate knowledge across the university to non-business students and to audiences external to the university through a variety of mechanisms. Business schools disseminate knowledge to external through faculty consulting activities. We distribute knowledge through conferences, seminars, and workshops provided to businesses and communities. We provide knowledge to businesses and non-profit organizations through faculty-mentored student projects.

Pillar 2: to create, advance, and diffuse knowledge

Nary a business school exists today that is not committed to conducting and publishing research, at least not any school that values AACSB accreditation. Research is the foundation of the business knowledge we teach in our curricula; it is how we satisfy our intellectual curiosity, tackle uncertainties, and search for better solutions. It is why most of our tenured and tenure-track faculty pursued a doctoral degree. Yet, if there is one area in which business schools clearly differ from each other, it may be the research pillar. Some business schools emphasize research over teaching; some schools emphasize teaching over research; and some schools promote a balance between the two. Some schools require publication in top-tier journals while others emphasize more applied research. Some business schools value teaching scholarship; others do not. There are reasons for these differences, and consequences. Nonetheless, creating, advancing, and diffusing knowledge is a core pillar of all business schools.

Pillar 3: to contribute to business and society

Business schools have a moral imperative, especially if publically funded, to make a positive impact on business, non-profit organizations, and communities which we serve. We contribute to the economic development of our communities and states in several different ways. One of the primary ways we do this is by preparing students to enter the workforce. We are most effective doing this when we utilize strong business and industry partnerships to maintain relevant and cutting edge programs designed to meet industry’s current and future needs. Providing assistance to companies and organizations through faculty or student consulting is a vital contribution and leverages our knowledge and expertise. Being involved in community service activities and engaging our students in service activities not only has immediate impact on society but also creates an attitude in students that making a difference in community matters.

Pillar 4: to contribute to the university’s mission

Business schools do not operate in isolation; rather, we are part of a larger whole, the university. And when the university is thriving, so, too, does the business school. Admittedly, though, we are often viewed as being isolationist by our university colleagues. We have, perhaps unwittingly, earned this reputation because business schools are different than other colleges. Our faculty members earn higher salaries, do little funded research, and do not have research labs; we raise more money from alumni than do other colleges – the list goes on and on. And maybe because of these differences, we do keep to ourselves. Yet, I would argue that a business school’s strength is in part determined by its relationships across the university and its contributions to the university’s mission. This goes far beyond the economic value business schools create for universities. For example, we make significant contributions to our universities related to areas in which business schools excel: strategic planning, assurance of learning, global learning, and entrepreneurship. We contribute to the academic rigor of the university by joining with our university colleagues to deliver interdisciplinary academic programs. We contribute to the work of the university by participating in committees that serve the university as a whole. Business schools’ contribution to the university mission is a critical pillar.

Implications of the four pillars for business schools

To what extent do business schools keep the four pillars in balance? I suspect that the emphasis of most business schools is on teaching and research, and that these two activities overshadow contributions to our internal and external partners. This may be a natural consequence of an accreditation system that focuses on the delivery of academic programs and the qualifications and sufficiency of faculty to deliver the academic programs.

It may also be a consequence of the ways in which we orient, mentor, and evaluate faculty performance. A new tenure-track faculty member is told to focus on research and teaching – usually in that order. We try to steer them away from time-consuming service work, innovative teaching that would require a significant allocation of time (e.g. student projects for companies), and business consulting. Anything that might interfere with the things they need to do to be tenured is verboten. As the faculty member’s research record begins to take shape, we encourage him or her to begin to take on a few more challenges – maybe a different course preparation, slightly more involved committee obligations, professional association involvement. By the time tenure is granted, a faculty member has established a pattern of responsibilities that is firmly rooted in research, teaching, and service, a pattern that rarely involves any significant contribution to the third and fourth pillars of a business school. Once tenure is achieved, contributions to the university certainly increase, but contributions to the business community, unless previously established, are not usually a priority for faculty members other than preparing students to be future employees.

In my opinion, for a business school to fully develop the third pillar, it needs to have its faculty members actively participating in business and community outreach and engagement activities. It is insufficient to rely only on business school administrators to make these contributions. The answer, I think, is that business schools need to establish clear expectations related to third pillar activities for all faculty members, regardless of rank, that are woven into evaluation and reward mechanisms. When we become deliberate and strategic about contributions to business and society, we are more likely to build an infrastructure that facilitates and nourishes such activities.

Remember the metaphor: a four-legged stool with even one short leg is unbalanced, wobbly, and in danger of falling down.

About the author

Dr Kay Palan leads the Haworth College of Business, academic home to nearly 5,000 students studying in 15 majors. Prior to joining WMU in July 2010, Palan was a faculty member at Iowa State University, first as an Associate Professor of Marketing, then as Associate Dean of the College of Business. During her tenure at ISU, Palan managed and coordinated both an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurial studies. She also undertook a number of marketing-related consulting projects with civic, non-profit and corporate entities throughout the state. Those projects dealt with marketing strategy, market opportunity analysis, feasibility studies, communication branding strategies, marketing plan development and customer satisfaction and loyalty. Palan also has an extensive consulting background with a variety of business firms and other organizations, including many in the health care industry. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing at Winona State University in 1976, a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Minnesota State University Moorhead (formerly Moorhead State) in 1990 and a doctoral degree in business from Texas Tech in 1994. Palan will lead the Haworth College of Business, which is WMU’s second largest college and the academic home to nearly 5,000 students studying in six departments. The college is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and is among just 25 percent of US business schools that are accredited at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It also is among a select 10 percent of US business schools that have additional specialized accreditation in accounting. Kay Palan is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

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