Shawn Massey, CCIM, SCLS

Academia vs. Real World in Commercial Real Estate Education: Welcome to the Valley of Death!

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear about some of the problems of medical research, specifically about the time it takes from an academic discovery in the laboratory to a drug being put on the market to help those in need.  I was astonished to learn that it could take 30 to 50 years in most cases to bring an academic medical discovery to an actual drug on the market.  The medical industry refers to this time frame as the “Valley of Death” which is the chasm between academia and the companies that will eventually produce and market a drug.  I am a neophyte on the subject matter and will limit my medical knowledge and commentary at this strategic point.  Although, the best way for me to grasp a subject is to relate it back to what I know best.  I ask the question do we have a “Valley of Death” between what students learn at our universities versus what they need to know on the job in terms of preparing the students for a career in real estate. 

Universities were built on the notion of “Academic Freedom” to explore the significant and controversial questions that are critical to an area of particular study.  There is a perceived notion for autonomy in a university education to allow free thought and not to be a pawn of corporate America. The university professor’s primary goal was to simply further knowledge and pushes the limits of critical thinking on the subject matter.  When I was working on both my Master’s and PhD coursework, I would welcome the opportunity to debate the works of the great economists/philosophers from Karl Marx to Adam Smith.  These debates although thought provoking did little to prepare me for the real world challenges of my career in commercial real estate.  This is where I feel the “Valley of Death” begins in academia.  Many of my graduate professors (not all) would simply not spend the time with students who were not pursuing the academic tract towards their PhD.  Maybe it was the nature of my chosen profession in real estate that gave the professors little desire to further my capitalistic goals when I could just as easily pursued and finish my doctorate program.  I could have joined the academic world of “publish or perish” while I sought my academic tenure at one of nation’s universities.  I am not against a formal university education, but an advocate for students to pursue both undergraduate and graduate degrees with a concentration in real estate.  I serve as an adjunct professor at a local university in their graduate real estate department and I am heavily involved in helping shape the real estate program for the future. 

I start off with the question.  “Does what a student learns in the college classroom readily transfer to the everyday life of a real estate broker, developer or other CRE professional?”

I would say that the study of real estate can be very different from some other academic studies.  The majority of people who concentrate their undergraduate or graduate work at the master’s level in real estate are doing so not to pursue a PhD in the future, but to further their career in the outside world.  The students recognize that a graduate degree can open more doors to greater job and career opportunities in addition to greater earnings over their life.  If you were to pursue an academic tract you probably would study economics or finance etc. before seeking an advanced degree in real estate.  The real estate industry today has a greater need for graduates with superior qualifications than ever before.  We need graduates with strong academic interests in real estate development to help rebuild our communities and cities incorporating sustainable building and planning practices.   It is this increased complexity of the real estate industry that requires real world professionals to have a comprehensive real estate education that not only blends a high level of academic rigor, but also a level of social responsibility.   

The problems that the real estate industry faces every day in our careers have little in relation to the knowledge or skills acquired through a formal college real estate education.  There lies the perceived disconnect between our “academic life” and our “real world challenges” we encounter every day.  The question now is it entirely possible to offer a real estate education at the university level that blends the real world challenges? 

The fine line that many universities have been walking between the academic side of real estate and business and the practical aspects are changing.  The pendulum has moved towards including more real world experiences into the classroom setting.   It has become about academia’s relation to the real world in the study of real estate development!  The academic study of real estate and the real estate development programs throughout the world have adopted various models to help deal with this chasm between a pure academic education and the real world need.  Thus, closing the gap in the “Valley of Death.”

In the future many university real estate programs at all levels future will begin to provide a realistic assessment of the marketplace in which most of our students will work and compete in daily.

How can a university program go about achieving this change in the future?

1.     Provide an opportunity for our students to learn from great academic professors and also take classes from real estate professionals.  This will blend practical perspectives with academic rigor.

2.    Require students to have real work experience before entering the graduate program.  College work and outside experience are complimentary.

3.     Remember that text books are just supplements to be used to compliment and augment the real world experiences. 

4.    Make the classroom discussion relevant!  I read recently, with relevancy comes engagement, with engagement comes learning which is the whole purpose of why a student has sought a college degree.

5.    Partner with such professional organizations such as CCIM, SIOR, NAIOP, ICSC, USGBC, ULI etc.  For example the CCIM Institute will allow a student to fast track their professional education program if the university offers certain real estate classes.

6.    The university should encourage the students to take professional training classes with the above organizations to compliment their college education and to provide networking opportunities in the real estate industry.

7.    The business college should partner with the local real estate association for career fairs to help students be aware of the many opportunities for a career in real estate. 

8.    The real estate programs need to reflect a commitment to deal with real estate issues in a professional forum.

9.    Academic research should reflect current issues and how the real estate professionals can deal with these issues today rather than just a reflection on the part of what happened to the real estate market in the past.

10.  Studies should include the history of real estate developers and industry icons and the issues they faced. 

11.  When we look at projects in the classroom they should look at not only the mega projects outlined in many of the required textbooks that are big and beautiful, but also concentrate on the smaller projects such as single tenant development that the majority of the students will most likely be doing.  

12.  The programs need to be driven by case studies and not just theory!

Real estate College graduates who obtain more education will have an advantage in today’s marketplace.  The universities responsibility is to help prepare the students for a fulfilling, profitable (they are in the real estate business) and socially responsible life.  The students need to be trained with the best practices of the real estate business today and with integrity and social responsibility in their knowledge base.        

For more information on an organization making great strides in medical research that I mentioned above please visit the website for the Myelin Repair Foundation at 

I hope you will check out future weekly commentary at   If you enjoy the commentary please subscribe online.



Shawn Massey, CCIM, SCLS is a partner with The Shopping Center Group a 3rd party retail real estate advisory firm in their Memphis office, an adjunct professor in the graduate real estate program at The University of Memphis and a co-founder and Chairman of the Board for the Memphis Business Academy charter schools (K-12grade) in the Frayser area of Memphis.  

For all your retail real estate needs (tenant representation, landlord representation and property, investment & land sales) I hope that you will choose The Shopping Center Group and me to represent you and your business.  We understand that representation is a privilege and that you have a choice!

468 ad

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *