Paper cites Associate Dean Lee as the exemplary “academic decathlete”

Tom Lee has published volumes of academic papers and book chapters. But last year, the Hughes M. Blake Endowed Professor of Management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business had the rare experience of being the subject of another author’s work.

In Sarah Kovoor-Misra’s “Academic Decathletes: Insights from the Metaphor and an Exemplar,” published in the Journal of Management Inquiry, the “exemplar” is Lee.

“Business school professors are facing increasing pressure to excel in diverse academic roles that require different knowledge and skills,” writes Kovoor-Misra in the paper’s abstract. “The multiplicity and diversity of roles evoke the image of the professor as an academic decathlete.”

To illustrate the metaphor, she uses an in-depth interview with Lee, “who has excelled in multiple academic roles.”

His curriculum vitae is loaded: Associate dean for academic and faculty affairs. Teacher of undergraduates, MBAs and executive MBAs in his 30 years at Foster. Mentor of PhDs. Author of more than 80 peer-reviewed papers. Co-creator of landmark theories on why people choose to leave or stay in their jobs. Recent editor of the Academy of Management Journal. Editorial board member of eight other journals. Past president of the Academy of Management. Private sector consultant. Fellow of the AOM and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

With the author’s and journal’s permission, here is an excerpt from Kovoor-Misra’s Q&A with Lee:

Kovoor: Why did you choose to be an academic?
Lee: I was working for the Southern California Edison Company, in Rosemead, California, in human resources. I happened to work on two projects: a study on attitudes towards nuclear power and validation of employee selection tests. These two projects made it quite salient that I should be an academic.

Kovoor: Why did you get involved in administration?
Lee: Once upon a time, I thought I would never get involved in administration. In 2004, however, I was on the AOM presidential track, AMJ Editor, and invited to be an Academy Fellow. I remember sitting in London with my wife and thinking—“My life is going pretty darn well!” Then, in the following month, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I needed surgery and radiation. At that time, I needed a job with a series of unchallenging tasks. The School responded very supportively and gave me the position of associate dean. At the end of one year I continued because of loyalty and commitment to the Foster School.

Kovoor: Do you think the metaphor of an athlete can be used to describe an academic?
Lee: Yes, it is very broadly applicable. What comes to mind (never having been a professional athlete) is that like an athlete you spend a long time training. Early on, your performance is based on ability but later on it is less raw athleticism and more on learning. For instance, as an assistant professor, you work ungodly long hours, and it is driven by physical energy. Later on, performance is more based on learned skills. When you are younger, you can sit and concentrate for long hours, and you have more mental acuity. As you get older, the ability to focus goes down, but you have learned how to take more breaks, and you become more efficient at thinking and writing.

Kovoor: Do you think academics who excel in multiple roles in research, administration, and teaching are similar to decathletes?
Lee: Yes, (the metaphor) makes sense to me because they require different skills. Most management faculty do research/writing, teaching, and service year round. The pressure to publish remains as high or higher now than before. As public schools move toward revenue-generating programs (to pay our bills), the demand for high-quality teaching has gone way up as well… And demand for service to maintain these programs has increased.

Kovoor: Do you think you are a decathlete?
Lee: That is a difficult question, but yes… I am publishing in the top journals; I am an associate dean; and am educating doctoral students. I am doing a lot of different roles concurrently, most people do it sequentially.

Kovoor: Any final ideas or thoughts?
Lee: I’ve heard it said somewhere that the business school faculty may be one of the last great jobs in America. I agree with that assertion.

For the full interview transcript, click here.