The Contemplative Reformer

By John Nagy (ND '00) | Spring 2017

Printer Friendly

Anne Tsui’s call for responsible business research is rooted in a lifelong journey of faith and scholarship.

In early 2013, Anne Tsui, Motorola Professor Emerita of International Management at Arizona State University, was reflecting on her scholarly career and what she should do to serve both the profession and God for the rest of her life.

Then came an invitation from Mendoza College of Business, in which she perceived the will of God.

That’s when Tsui — a widely respected, award-winning researcher, a past president of the Academy of Management, recipient of multiple lifetime service and scholarly contribution awards, and a bridge-builder between the scholarly endeavors of East and West — headed off to Notre Dame to study theology and to discover God’s plan for her.

“I wanted to learn more about the God who I have loved all my life,” she says, explaining the sense of vocation that brought her to northern Indiana in 2014 with the unorthodox title of adjunct distinguished professor in Mendoza’s Department of Management.

Tsui’s assignment at Notre Dame is simple: No teaching. Just take theology classes and pursue her own projects. If she wanted — and she did — she could help Mendoza Dean Roger Huang think about how to introduce new faculty to Notre Dame’s mission to engender, through teaching and research, “a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”

This mission-centered role seems ideal for Tsui, whose guiding principle in 30 years as an accomplished, nomadic and Trans-Pacific educator and researcher was how to use her gifts to help the largest number of people. One possible path was to seek a leadership role in the Church’s work to alleviate poverty and human suffering.

Another path opened while auditing theology courses such as Catholic Social Teaching, Mystery of God, Christian Hope, and Following Jesus. This path is leading Tsui back to what she views as the unfinished business of her academic career — mobilizing scholars to make a bigger and more positive social impact through their research. Simply stated, Tsui aims to change the way business schools do research. Not just management research, and not just at Notre Dame or other U.S. universities, but across all the disciplines and in business schools around the world.

LIVING UP TO OUR POTENTIAL

If that sounds like an impossible dream, Tsui harbors no illusions about the difficulty of realizing it. “God does not ask us to be successful,” she points out. “He only asks us to serve with our full soul and heart.”

And it may not be so impossible after all, especially for a scholar of Tsui’s caliber and reputation. Over the past decade, she has become a champion of responsible research that has potential relevance for addressing the problems of importance to business and to society, rather than just of interest to the academic circle. As program chair of the Academy of Management’s 2010 conference in Montreal, she chose “Dare to Care: Passion and Compassion in Management Research and Practice” as the theme.

Two years later, the contemplative and soft-spoken Tsui devoted her presidential address to further develop this idea. Offering the association’s 18,000 members reasons for both hope and alarm in a sweeping survey of global suffering, corporate responses and the shortcomings of a research culture that favors quantitative rigor over societal relevance, Tsui marshaled insights from Adam Smith, Saint Theresa of Calcutta and Albert Einstein along the way.

Quoting Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, who after World War II regretted bitterly the role his work and advocacy had played in the invention of the atomic bomb, Tsui charges, “Concern for making life better for ordinary humans must be the chief objective of science. Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations!”

A layman’s review of recent issues of leading management journals illustrates her point. Most titles are abstract and theoretical. They offer for-scholars’-eyes-only “systems perspectives” and “dynamic models” in their analyses of things that sound potentially important to the rest of us, such as “workplace incivility.” The trouble is, managers can’t and don’t read this stuff, Tsui says, and there’s no incentive for scholars to write for anyone other than each other. “We are not living up to our potential,” she says.

CHANGING THE ECOSYSTEM

Tsui is quick to emphasize that she’s not criticizing the research itself, but rather the “ecosystem” that shapes it. Thousands of professors compete to get their papers published in the top business journals. Publishing success figures significantly in hiring decisions, promotion and tenure reviews, accreditation evaluations, rankings in the popular press. Top journals define the problems, the analytical methods, the theories that researchers consider valid and interesting.

“The system does not allow faculty enough freedom to pursue important problems,” Tsui explains. To buck the system is to be marginalized.

What’s “important” when it comes to problems? Think poverty and income inequality, the changing nature of work and the skills required to do it, the human costs of automation, the unsustainable abuse of natural and human resources, employee stress, she says. Younger faculty especially can’t afford the time it takes to probe into such messy social issues and complex business problems, which often require complex interdisciplinary approaches to be properly, and accessibly, understood.

Has the pursuit of scientific rigor, and the emphasis on the novel theories at the expense of important ideas, led business schools into what

Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference” to human suffering? “Business schools do want to do good research that’s useful for society,” Tsui affirms. “And they really are stuck in the current system. If we can somehow get everybody” — and she means everybody, from journal editors to accreditors to university presidents — “to move at the same time, then there’s hope we can change the ecosystem.”

A LIFE OF DEVOTION

Born in Shanghai, Tsui moved to Hong Kong when she was 9 as an illegal immigrant. Her father worked on an oceangoing cargo ship out of Malta, where he became a Catholic. Tsui and her mother took catechism classes at his direction and entered the Church when Tsui was 15. At age 21, she left Hong Kong for undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, and then completed her Ph.D. at UCLA. Her true conversion came while on the faculty at Duke University, her first academic job. She attended a Cursillo retreat that charged her spiritually.

She got involved in her parish, taught Sunday school, joined the choir; practices she continued throughout her life, even when she left the United States in the 1990s to create a management department from scratch at the brand-new Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Tsui’s success in her childhood hometown led to what she calls “my China project,” her involvement in the development of business education and research practices across China. Her role in founding the International Association for Chinese Management Research and its journal in the early 2000s could have been a crowning achievement in an increasingly notable career. But Tsui wasn’t finished.

REEXAMINING BUSINESS RESEARCH

The learning from theology classes is shaping Tsui’s thinking well beyond spiritual enlightenment. She even gets research ideas from reading papal encyclicals. Pope St. John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961), paragraph 71, has her spinning questions that might uncover, for instance, the optimal ratio between CEO and employee compensation to keep firms competitive and employees motivated. “The ideas of solidarity, the common good, human dignity, human rights and subsidiarity can be extremely useful in understanding the role of business in society and the social contract between employers and employees,” she says.

A course on philosophy of science, which she audited during her first semester at Notre Dame, led her to rethink doctoral education. She decided to design a new course for doctoral students in China. More than 100 scholars-in-training during the last two years have learned to ask not just how but why they study business problems through Tsui’s course on the philosophy of science in management research.

“What is the purpose of research?” is the question Tsui wants these future scholars to be asking. At the same time, she has raised this question to a global level. She engaged the directors of the two major business-school accreditation agencies — the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the European Foundation for Management Development — and with their support, has coordinated 24 leading scholars, representing the five major disciplines of 23 business schools and 10 countries in North America, Europe and Asia, to identify a path and lead the charge. Calling themselves the Community for Responsible Research in Business and Management, the group is producing a white paper to lay out a vision for transforming the research agenda and doctoral training by 2030. The white paper proposes seven principles of responsible science and identifies a set of coordinated actions by different stakeholders of the research ecosystem to bring about system level changes.

Imagine research, they say, that helps businesses innovate, boost performance and foster employee and customer well-being while tackling poverty, solving food and water scarcity and supporting education through market-based solutions and public-private partnerships. Freed from absolute loyalty to rigid disciplinary norms of novelty and quantity, and by tackling bigger and more societally important questions, such scholarship might also mean, for instance, a Mendoza College faculty generating scientific insights keenly aligned with Notre Dame’s unique mission, history and character.

Which brings us back to the project Dean Huang asked Tsui to consider when she arrived in the fall 2014. One Sunday afternoon this past February, Tsui and finance professor Martijn Cremers convened some three dozen faculty members, spouses and children in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for a 90-minute tour. There, they heard the basilica’s rector, Father Peter Rocca, CSC, cover Notre Dame’s missionary roots, its entrepreneurial founder, the lives of the saints and the story of 2,000 years of Catholicism as told in the windows and walls.

It’s one little piece of what’s needed, she says, and she’d like to see this kind of orientation to the institutional mission expand into a full day or two of immersion in the University’s Catholic character. She knows some people might object on religious grounds, but Tsui says universities should approach orientation of new employees the same way good companies do. Research has shown that a strong socialization to an organization’s mission builds employee identification and commitment. “It’s not a religious experience,” she says. “It’s exposure to the mission.”

Without such exposure, how does one contribute? After all, Notre Dame’s mission is entirely consistent with the goal of science: to seek truth and to use the knowledge to improve humanity. “All faculty members can find inspiration from Notre Dame’s mission in their life and in their work. I am grateful to be a part of this spirit-filled community.”