Standing on Top of the Wrong Wall!

[We’re pleased to welcome authors, A. R. Elangovan of the University of Victoria British Columbia and Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan. They recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “The Pursuit of Success in Academia: Plato’s Ghost Asks “What then?” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the backstory and motivation for this research:]

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What happens if you spend the better part of your working life fighting to climb the career ladder, succeed with hard work and sacrifice to get to the top, and then discover you have scaled the wrong wall? This was the question that we wrestled with during a chance meeting in February 2017. We were meeting for the first time but quickly recognized during the course of our discussion that we were kindred spirits in how we imagined the conceptualization and enactment of scholarly identities and purpose, and the role of academia in modern society. Our shared sensibilities were tinged with a sense of urgency to elevate this topic towards a broader and more critical debate, especially in light of the political, social and economic shifts that are radically altering the landscape of our professional and personal lives.

Central to our thinking was an unease that academia has drifted away from its primary role as the intellectual conscience of society – a place where we can gather with curiosity and passion to search skillfully for answers to questions that will point us towards better and more enlightened ways of living. We were troubled by what we had experienced as business school professors in how “success” for an academic has been so narrowly construed that it was pushing doctoral students and junior faculty towards a sterile, transactional, “careerist” interpretation of academic life. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, we felt we were running the risk of creating a generation of academics who have “all the completeness of a limited scholar.” It was an interpretation that was in direct contrast to our belief that being an academic should be imagined and enacted as a calling, one where our creative, curious and skilled search for answers meets the pressing needs of society, i.e., that we see ourselves as actors with a responsibility to help improve the world we live in. We were deeply worried that the way business schools have defined and pursued “success” in recent decades was a self-inflicted wound that only served to undermine our contributions in and to society just as the very value of academia as an institution is being questioned, disparaged, and increasingly dismissed as irrelevant.

We felt compelled to break step with the business-as-usual approach to our work and raise the alarm about this impoverished interpretation of success that permeates our academic trajectories. We were moved and inspired by the message in the poem “What then?” by W.B. Yeats that highlights the life journey of an ambitious young man who does everything “right” as per the societal norms and mores of his time, but ends up feeling unfulfilled and increasingly unsure even as his successes add up. Our paper is wrapped around the four stanzas in the poem and equates them to the four stages of academic life. Our hope is that our call to question, challenge and critique the way we currently define success in academia would ignite a debate within business schools about our identities, responsibilities and opportunities as management scholars.

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