Getting Schooled – Lessons from an Adjunct

This post previously appeared in Poets and Quants

I’ve been an adjunct professor for nearly two decades. Here’s what I’ve learned.


Colleges and universities that offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to teach innovation and entrepreneurship classes may benefit from a more formal onboarding process.

The goal would be six-fold:

  1. Integrate adjuncts as partners with their entrepreneurship centers 
  2. Create repeatable and scalable processes for onboarding adjuncts
  3. Expose adjuncts to the breadth and depth of academic research in the field
  4. Expose faculty to current industry practices
  5. Create a stream of translational entrepreneurship literature for practitioners (founders and VC’s.) 
  6. Create fruitful and mutually beneficial relationships between traditional research faculty and adjunct faculty.

In my experience as both an adjunct and a guest speaker at a number of universities, I’ve observed the often-missed opportunity to build links between faculty research and practitioner experience. Entrepreneurial centers have recognized the benefits of both, but a more thoughtful effort to build stronger relationships between research and practice—and the faculty and adjuncts who are teaching – can result in better classes, strengthen connections between research and practice, build the Center’s knowledge base and enhance the reputation of the Center and its program.  (See here for what that would look like.)

An adjunct is a non-tenure track, part-time employee. Innovation and entrepreneurship programs in most schools use experienced business practitioners as lecturers or adjunct faculty to teach some or all of their classes. In research universities with entrepreneurship programs adjuncts are typically founders, VC’s or business executives. Tenure track faculty focus on research in innovation and entrepreneurship while the adjuncts teach the “practice” of entrepreneurship.

It’s Been A Trip
I’ve been an adjunct for almost 18 years, and I still remember the onboarding process at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. I started as a guest lecturer, essentially walk-on entertainment, where the minimal entry was proving that I could form complete sentences and tell engaging stories from my eight startups that illustrated key lessons in entrepreneurship.

Feeling like I had passed some test (which I later learned really was a test), I then graduated to co-teaching a class with Jerry Engel, the Founding Executive Director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at Haas. Here I had to master someone else’s curriculum, hold the attention of the class and impart maximum knowledge with minimum damage to the students. While I didn’t realize it, I was passing another test.  

I knew I wanted to write a book about a (then) radically new entrepreneurship idea called Customer Development (later the foundation of the Lean Startup movement). Concurrently, Jerry needed an entrepreneurial marketing course, and suggested that if I first created my class, a book would emerge from it. He was right. The Four Steps to the Epiphany, the book that launched the Lean Startup movement, was based on the course material from my first class. I don’t know who was more surprised – Jerry hearing that an adjunct wanted to create a course or me hearing Jerry say, “Sure, go ahead. We’ll get it approved.”  

And here’s where the story gets interesting. John Freeman, the Faculty Director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at Haas, began to mentor me as I started teaching my class. While I expected John to drop in to monitor how and what I was teaching, I was pleasantly surprised when he suggested we grab coffee once a week. Each week, over the course of the semester, John gently pointed (prodded) me to read specific papers from the academic literature that existed on customer discovery in the enterprise and adjacent topics. In exchange, I shared with him my feedback on whether the theory matched the practice and what theory was missing. And herein lies the tale.

I got a lot smarter discovering an entire universe of papers and people who had researched and thought long and hard about innovation and entrepreneurship. While no one had the exact insights about startups I was exploring, the breadth and depth of what I didn’t know was staggering. More importantly, my book, customer development, and the Lean methodology were greatly influenced by all the research that had preceded me. In hindsight, I consider it a work of translational entrepreneurship. 18 years later I’m still reading new papers and drawing new insights that allow me to further refine ideas in the classroom and outside it.

The Relationship of Faculty, Staff and Adjuncts
What I had accidentally stumbled into at U.C. Berkeley was a rare event. The director of the entrepreneurship center and the faculty research director were working as a team to build a department which explored both research and practice in depth. Together, in just a few years, they used the guest speaker > to co-teacher > to teacher methodology to build a professional faculty of over a dozen instructors.

A few lessons from that experience:
A successful adjunct program starts with the mindset of the faculty research director and the team building skills of the center director. If they recognize that the role of adjuncts is to both teach students practical lessons and to keep faculty abreast of real-world best practices, the relationship will flourish. 

However, in some schools, this faculty-adjunct relationship may become problematic. Faculty may see the role of adjuncts in their department as removing the drudgework of “teaching” from the research faculty so the faculty can pursue the higher calling of entrepreneurial research, publishing and advising PhD students. In this case, adjuncts at the entrepreneurial center are treated as a source of replaceable low-cost teaching assets (somewhere above TA’s and below PhD students.) The result is a huge missed opportunity for a collaborative relationship, one that can enhance the stature and ranking of the department.

When there is support from the faculty research director, the director of the entrepreneurship center can build a stronger program that enhances the reputation of the faculty, program and school.

At U.C. Berkeley this support eventually led the entire school to change its policy toward adjuncts, giving them formal recognition – designating them ‘professional faculty,’ creating a shared office space suite, inviting adjuncts to participate in some faculty meetings, etc.

A side effect of this type of collaboration is that the faculty-adjunct relationship offers the school an opportunity to co-create translational entrepreneurship.

Translational entrepreneurship is fancy term for linking entrepreneurial research with the work of entrepreneurs. As a process, adjuncts would read an academic paper, understand it, see if and how it can be relevant to practitioners (founders, VC’s, corporate exec or employees) and then sharing it with a wide audience.

While Jerry and John built a great process, they didn’t document it. When John Freeman passed away and Jerry Engel retired, the onboarding process went with them. Linked here is my attempt to capture some of these best practices in an “Onboarding Adjuncts Handbook” for directors of entrepreneurship centers and adjuncts.

It’s worth a look.

Lessons Learned

A small investment in building repeatable and scalable processes for onboarding adjuncts would:

  • Allow entrepreneurship centers to integrate adjuncts as partners 
  • Expose adjuncts to the breadth and depth of academic research in the field
  • Potentially create a stream of translational entrepreneurship literature for practitioners (founders and VC’s.) 
  • The result would be:
    • Better adjunct-led classes
    • Deeper connections between research and practice
    • Better and more relevant academic research
    • Enhanced reputation of the center and its program
  • See here for a suggested onboarding handbook
    • Comments, suggestions and additions welcomed

2 Responses

  1. Very insightful. Is this a version of Lean Startup method applied to building a first-class University department/program?

    Like

  2. Super stuff — I want to tweet about it!! Congrats on getting it done /Jerry

    Jerome S. Engel U.C. Berkeley JeromeEngel.com @jeromesengel

    Like

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