Nick Greiner

One of the fashionable new positions at a senior level in universities is the head of engagement, or some variation on the title. There’s clearly a perception that relationships with the world outside the academic community are not as developed as they could be.

So is there an engagement issue for universities in general, and business and economics schools and faculties in particular? I would say, yes.

Take the top public companies. Across the boards of the ASX100 there are about 700 directors, but only four are current business or economics professors, and in each case they’re on a single board.

Given the quality of thinking and research experience of our business school academics, their board representation is much lower than one would expect. There are also four health and life science professors on ASX100 boards.

Among large government-owned enterprises, there appear to be no practicing academics on the boards where surely the complex regulatory and economic issues could benefit from their expertise.

Of course, academics frequently conduct public policy research as consultants for governments, make submissions, and do joint studies with corporations, but that’s quite different from having a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Going the other way – from business back to academe – I looked at how many directors of the same ASX100 companies say on their CVs that they’ve got anything to do with universities. The answer is nine, who hold honorary appointments as adjunct professors.

There are also a number of business leaders on university advisory boards, but that’s mostly about helping to raise money.

The era of board vacancies being filled via an old mates’ network has passed. Placements are now made using executive search firms, which comprise a large professional group. My theory is that these headhunters overwhelmingly do not know who exists in universities – such as the brightest people in marketing or finance – and consequently don’t put their names forward.

We need to somehow get the existence and merits of our top academics exposed to the executive search community. They are obviously relevant. For example, there’s a lot of work being done in business schools on risk and risk assessment, which is an issue the banks are very worried about.

Is it that academic is a dirty word at the higher levels of Australian business, and that the instinct about what’s needed is “people who have met the payroll” – basically, CEOs? Perhaps there’s a prejudice against those whose life experience and success has been academic, and they’re seen to be more about theory and process while the business world is more about results.

On the other side, it’s possible academics aren’t putting themselves forward for fear of not doing well, or that they may suffer reputational damage because companies occasionally go broke or are the subject of controversy.

In the US, it’s seen as a badge of honour for an academic to be accepted on to the board of a company that employs tens of thousands of people, a positive thing in terms of promotion and reputation. It may well be that in Australia it’s not.

Much is written about diversity on boards, how it’s very important, yet at the moment it’s mostly defined as gender diversity. True diversity would have different relevant backgrounds. University experts on the boards of our major economic institutions would clearly add to the diversity.

One way of connecting academe with business is through case studies. We could look to the Harvard model which teaches by sending its academics out to firms and writing real-world cases, such as why something may have succeeded or failed. It puts the academics inside the company. This happens to some extent in Australia but not as much as it could.

And then there’s the question of our research programs. Are they sufficiently relevant to industry? It’s appropriate that research is put through the academic filter of peer-review, but could it also be put through a real-life filter? Is the research answering a question that anyone cares about, or just a theoretical question that nobody outside of universities thinks is important or interesting?

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on innovation-active businesses revealed that only 10% had a collaborative arrangement with universities. Figures from the level of start-ups, venture capitals and SMEs revealed that only 3% saw universities as a source of innovation.

It highlights that universities are right to be concerned about a lack of engagement with the outside world, and the business community in particular. The disconnect is coming from both ends – we’ve got academics that are probably not putting themselves forward and companies that are not actively trying to attract  them.

It amounts to a missed opportunity all round.

Nick Greiner is a former premier of NSW and a distinguished visitor at the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School. A version of this post appeared in The Australian Financial Review.