Experts, Not Profs, Increasingly Teaching MBA Courses

At the University of St. Gallen School of Management in Switzerland, 80% of elective courses in the full-time MBA are now taught by industry experts. File photo

If you want another reason to pay close attention and participate in class, here’s a good one: your professor could be your next boss.

It’s hardly news that business schools have great connections with businesses — after all, their main purpose is to help students get a great job. But in this fast-changing business environment, top schools are going a step beyond bringing in CEOs to give the odd lecture or taking students on a tour of the shop-floor. Increasingly, managers from the best businesses are also teaching large chunks of the courses on MBAs. 

At the University of St. Gallen School of Management, a B-school in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, 80% of elective courses on its full-time MBA are now taught by industry experts. At Paris’s HEC, up to 40% of elective hours are taught by non-academics. Madrid’s IE uses part-time staff for 65% of the courses on its full-time MBA. 

IESE, based in Barcelona, reports that 21% of its classes are taught by visiting professors, and around 70% of these are “non-academic external collaborators” which includes senior executives, managers, consultants, and entrepreneurs. This is a new development. St Gallen says that just five years ago almost no courses were taught by outsiders. 

So why is it happening? In a word, demand. “Students want to learn from practitioners,” says Ian Hawkings, a senior consultant at Carrington Crisp, an education consultancy. “They really value it and they like it. If students want it, schools will provide it. The world is changing fast, and sometimes students need to hear from people whose boots are on the ground. Academics by and large don’t know what is happening on the shop-floor.” 


Astronaut Chris Hadfield advises on space start-ups at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. University of Toronto photo

Having people from MBA-hungry recruiters face-to-face with potential recruits helps both sides, of course. And a willingness to parachute in external experts also means that schools can quickly add niche electives for small classes without asking an academic to spend years researching it. Another reason it’s an attractive option from the schools’ perspective: cost. It’s a lot cheaper to bring in a practitioner to teach a course than an academic on the tenure track. In fact, it’s a fraction of the cost.

This all raises lots of questions. It’s understandable that students want to meet industry bigwigs. But students don’t always know what’s best for them. Are these classes any good?

“It is important to have a good balance between academic and non-academic faculty,” says Rosa Pérez del Pulgar, Faculty Executive Director, IESE Business School. “I believe there are more pros than cons to having some non-academics teach courses, but it takes a lot of time to develop them. Being a good manager, or executive doesn’t mean knowing how to teach.” (A cynic might say that not all academics are great teachers anyway, but that is another discussion.)

Schools are careful not to bring in just anybody. IESE works to verify that its non-academic teachers have proven to be good instructors, that they are “aligned with IESE´s mission and values”, and that they are only appointed after three years’ training and supervised teaching. St Gallen looks for experts who are already teaching, either in their own company or externally, and then work with them to structure courses that are up to scratch, pairing them with experienced faculty and giving feedback. 

Obviously, the stronger the links between industry and academia, the better for students when it comes to finding a job. Businesses also benefit from being in the classroom, because they can scout the best talent.  


So if using non-academics to teach is such a good idea, why aren’t all the classes taught by them? First, because ranking lists are hugely important to business schools, and The Financial Times‘ MBA ranking rewards schools for having faculty with Ph.D.s — in other words, academics teaching courses.

More importantly, it’s because different types of know-how are suited to different parts of an MBA. HEC says that 90% of the fundamental part of the MBA program is taught by faculty, because “rigorous analytical thinking” is paramount. But during the customizable part of the MBA, where experience is often more relevant, up to 40% can be taught by external collaborators. Examples include advanced finance classes taught by senior bankers and an ethics seminar delivered by a monk. Astronaut Chris Hadfield advises on space start-ups at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. 

One possible downside: If schools become too reliant on industry, conflicts of interest could arise. If a school’s highly-attractive and much-loved big data course are largely taught by employees of a social media giant, is the school going to feel uncomfortable criticizing the firm when it turns out they’ve been selling users’ data? This is another reason academic neutrality could be important. 

Done well, outsider-taught courses are gold-dust and can give students unrivaled industry contacts. But aspiring MBAs should make sure outsiders complement academic teaching and are restricted to highly specialized areas: ask about these non-academics’ teaching prowess and how much oversight the school exercises.


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