Should You Be Teaching at a Venture-Backed Private College?

Judging from my industry friends, some time in their professional career (usually later), the teaching bug bites them and they wonder about passing on their knowledge to a new generation of industrialists and entrepreneurs. A regular position as a professor at a German public university or a polytechnic (university of applied sciences) is often unattainable because of age and a missing or limited publication record, and even though I’d recommend it, contributing as an unpaid lecturer and building up a vita to go for an honorary professor position seems unattractive.

Enter a new breed of private polytechnic colleges in Germany. We’ve always had a dual system of “high-brow” research public universities and “practical” public polytechnic colleges. Some time in the past, private colleges became possible. The first generation, from my perspective, tried to create an ivy-league vibe and hid in far-away places. Not so the new breed, which squarely goes where the money is. Right now this is software/high-tech + Berlin, and the two main examples I know off are CODE and XU, but I’m sure there’ll be more. These are accredited polytechnic colleges and it appears they can offer the prestigious title of “professor”.

So, if offered, should you accept a professorship at such a private for-profit polytechnic college? Naturally, it depends. Let me first discuss the prospects of these schools and then what it means for a professorship position.

The college

Fundamentally, I think these schools are on the right track. Most notably, the interests of the college (usually a venture-financed startup) and their customers i.e. students are aligned, much more so than at Germany’s public research universities. Like at most polytechnics, there is no or little research, and focus is on teaching. There is a lot these colleges can get right that its competition is still failing at like positioning graduates for industry and building up an alumni network as an investment into its future. They can focus on high-net-worth graduates in computer science and leave the unprofitable philosophy majors to public state-sponsored universities.

Equally importantly, “professors” are employees and I suspect the guarantee of freedom of teaching from Germany’s basic law has to be taken with a grain of salt, if you can be fired or demoted. This will keep teachers on edge and closer to the state of the art than its competition. It should also lead to more teamwork in teaching and better coordination, something that is often missing at traditional universities. All of this plays into the hands of better practical education for Bachelor and Master students.

I also suspect that being a student at these schools will give the college more access to the results of student work, for example, if students are headed for a startup. At a minimum, this is an information advantage. However, intellectual property rights around student work are exceptionally tricky in Germany, and I spend a lot of my own time making sure that the startups I create from my research can start with a clean slate of IP rights. So I’m not sure the college benefits much more than being the primary access point to these startups.

On the downside, these German polytechnic colleges do not have doctoral (Ph.D.) students so an important source of innovation for startups is missing. Master-student based startups are limited in that they can’t get much farther than an idea and a simple prototype, mostly in the consumer business. The business angel list for CODE illustrates this nicely: All angels focus on the consumer space. Enterprise software startups need more experience and often deeper technology than that.

The teaching

So, should you teach there? If you also want to do research and be an allround professor in the classic German sense, obviously not. If teaching at CODE or XU is anything like teaching at a public polytechnic college, then you will spend 19h each week in the class room and spend the rest of the time developing your course material and grading homework. Hopefully, this new breed of colleges is smarter than the old and recognizes student satisfaction as a future benefit and supports the teacher adequately with assistants. In any case, you will likely be busy the first 2-3 years just with teaching and will have little time for anything else. Later, you may start or continue your consulting company on the side, as many do, drawing on the student pool for cheap labor.

I don’t know, but I’d be surprised if the job was lucrative. While probably paid better than a regular university job (but without the benefits like the state pension), I would also assume that the employer will try to negotiate you down by tapping into that warm and fuzzy feeling about being a teacher to young impressionable minds. For my age group, let me say this: When the hiring manager at the college is talking about mogwais in your future, you should be thinking gremlins instead to stay grounded.

Key questions then to ask are about employee churn in the first few years as well as how much support you get for your teaching duties. If you are the entrepreneurial kind, I would also closely scrutinize how you can benefit from working with students and helping foster startups.

Alternatives

Alternatives for my friends are to simply co-teach and build up a vita that eventually will give them an (unpaid) honorary professor position at a university of their choice. This is a side-gig, if you will, and you still need to earn your living yourself, but your risk is much lower and the financial outcome still better. I for one am happy to support friends and colleagues this way. It usually is a win/win all-around.

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