In his inaugural address last September, Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon emphasized that “we must fully harness the power of experiential learning – learning by doing.” Such learning, which challenges students to test their ideas in practice and refine them in light of experience, is a major emphasis at leading institutions of higher education today. As rates of economic disruption have accelerated, the ability to derive solutions for which there is no existing formula has become a survival skill for many careers. In the face of this, top global programs have intensified their emphasis on experiential education as a bet on future rankings and leadership. But are today’s colleges and universities structured in a way that is conducive to following through on this commitment?
Dartmouth became a focal point for this debate when Professor Gregg Fairbrothers, widely recognized for his leadership in experiential learning for innovators and entrepreneurs, was abruptly dismissed. At most schools, the decision by administrators to forego rehiring a practitioner-professor would be an open and shut case. The temporary status of such professors is built into the basis upon which they serve. Typically, faculty members who have earned their stripes through enabling new solutions in the marketplace, rather than through academic research, serve under the marginal status of “adjunct” professors. This is hard-coded within the system colleges and universities have for recognizing and promoting talent.