Alphabet just hired a computer scientist from Stanford University. Fei-Fei Li is more than a respected scientist; she also is the director of Stanford University’s artificial intelligence lab. No longer. From university to corporation, academic talent is being hired by different corporations.

A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Tech Companies Tap New Talent From Academia” highlights how this move is not the first, and it likely will not be the last. During the past decade, “computer-science Ph.D.s taking industry jobs has risen to 57% from 38%.” Although the number of Ph.D.s in computer science has grown, the number staying in academia is at “a historic low.”

Many reasons exist as to why this university to corporation trend is growing. Artificial intelligence is a hot area, requiring the brightest minds and talent. Corporations offer more perks, including higher salaries, stock options, resources, and steady funding. While research in a corporate setting increases, attracting artificial intelligence talent can add $5 to $10 million to a company’s bottom line.

After reading the article, two thoughts came to mind:

  1. Does the university to corporation talent street need to be one way?
  2. Should universities be doing more to attract corporate talent to their classrooms, research centers, leadership institutes, and entrepreneurial venture labs?

I believe the answer should be an unquestionable “yes!”

Corporation to University: What Are the Trends?

As I began searching for data on how corporate leaders are being hired by universities, no information is readily available. Instead, what surfaces are articles about university-corporation partnerships and how corporate CEOs do not make good university presidents. Here are some interesting points found:

  • Although it is challenging to find a direct number of corporate-university partnerships, a barometer is the National Science Foundation and their compilation of higher education R&D expenditures. “In the 2012 fiscal year, that figure stood at roughly $66 billion, up from the $41 billion recorded in 2003.” (Getting Real In The Real World: The Latest In University-Business Partnerships)
  • A few universities dominate tenured professors in the fields of computer science, business, and history. The statistics: “just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada.” (The Academy’s Dirty Secret)
  • Many job listings for college professor opportunities state that a doctorate is preferred or required. Although not specifically stated, 80% of human resource deans say this is a nice-to-have, especially since it makes accreditation meetings less painful. The reality: According to one poll, 67% of faculty did not start with a doctorate. (Doctorate or Not? Demystifying the question: “Do professors need a terminal degree to teach?’)
  • Have business schools lost their way? Academic research and specific functional skills are important, but they are not good enough alone. Business schools need to expand and embrace the real practice of business. “By whatever means they choose – running businesses, offering internships, encouraging action research, consulting, and so forth – business school faculties simply must rediscover the practice of business. We cannot imagine a professor of surgery who has never seen a patient, or a piano teacher who doesn’t play the instrument, and yet today’s business schools are packed with intelligent, highly skilled faculty with little or no managerial experience.” (How Business Schools Lost Their Way)

What my searches produced were interesting insights with no real data or trends on how universities are leveraging corporate talent.

Gaining a Different University Perspective

I am not an expert in university models, but it seems intuitive that gaining corporate experience in the classroom will produce more well-rounded, business-ready graduates. By doing this, it is not a replacement strategy. Instead, it is a collaborative strategy. The combination of doctorate and corporate experiences is powerful. Along with the need for innovation and new thinking, experience-oriented perspectives facilitate practical strategic and leadership tactics to navigate competitive, organizational, and market challenges.

Just as corporations gain value from hiring academic talent to enable their strategic plans, universities can gain value from hiring corporate talent to produce more well-rounded graduates. I know this happens to some degree today, but there is an opportunity to expand this practice.

A mindset shift is necessary. Going back to the Alphabet example, Stanford University lost a big talent. Now, go to the Stanford University page entitled a “Guide for Corporations, ” and you will find the following framework:

  • Support faculty, students, or facilities through a broad partnership
  • License specific technology
  • Sponsor research
  • Join an industrial affiliate program or research center in your area of interest
  • Sponsor clinical trials
  • Support a faculty member’s research

While appropriate, the elements are pedestrian, and they may not enhance the university model of producing the best graduates possible.

University to Corporation and Corporation to University

From the corporation to university lane, some changes seem relevant to explore and implement. A few ideas include:

Open opportunities for corporate talent.

For universities, be proactive in pursuing corporate experience and talented leaders. On your “Guide for Corporations” page, list teaching openings tailored for business leaders. More than job recruitment, include programs to attract corporate leaders for a year or more. Set-up a teaching rotation program with major corporations. More than funding, go for the talent.

Be open-border to enable corporate talent to teach.

For corporations, open your borders to let business leaders easily take a tour-of-teaching duty for a year or two. Corporations will gain at least two benefits. First, the business leader coming back will be well-attuned to the next generation of talent and leaders. Second, graduates being hired will better meet your requirements since they will gain real-world perspectives and challenges from real-world business leaders. A two-way win.

Ditch Ph.D. requirements in certain job listings.

If a Ph.D. is truly not required, then ditch the requirement in the teaching position listings. Instead, specify the business experiences you seek and the business perspectives you want. Also, make it easier to apply. University job applications are burdensome and, well, un-business-like. Simplify the process to what is more aligned to how a vice president of marketing or chief technology officer is hired.

Enable a better platform for business leaders to find university teaching positions.

In the corporate universe, there are many platforms to find open positions. In the college universe, a few specialized sites exist, but they seem incomplete. A better platform to find the teaching opportunities needs to be created. The simple approach is for universities to use LinkedIn to post relevant professor or lecturer opportunities. Using the business recruitment platform to post teaching opportunities seems like a slam-dunk approach.

Changing World Requires Collaborative Environments

Corporations get it. They know that academic talent will help them be more competitive and craft better products and solutions. Universities need to follow the corporate lead and be more aggressive in attracting business talent to help them produce the best graduates possible.

A collaborative way is the higher-value way. I believe students will appreciate the mix of academic and business perspectives. I believe professors will enjoy the collaborative conversations and work, too.

What we need are fewer boundaries and more two-way avenues between corporations and universities. Let’s build this collaborative learning and growth highway.

Join the conversation.

  • What university and corporation partnerships that you have seen work?
  • What are the distinguishing factors for success?
  • What role do you see business serving in the university classroom?