Sunday, April 08, 2012

Commitment and conflicts

One of the various hats I wear right now is chair of Rice's university committee on research, and one topic that has come up lately (in the context of the US government's new regs about conflict of interest) is the discussion of "commitment". Conflict of interest is comparatively simple to explain to people - everyone grasps the idea that financial or other compensation that may give the appearance of affecting your scholarly objectivity is potentially a conflict of interest. Commitment is a more challenging concept. Most universities expect their science and engineering faculty in particular to spend some of their time doing things that are not immediately, directly connected to their simplest academic duties (teaching courses, supervising research students and postdocs, performing university service). For example, technical consulting isn't that unusual. Likewise, there are other broadly defined academic duties that can come up (serving on advisory or editorial boards; professional society work) that can enhance the academic mission of the university in a higher order way. However, it's clear that there have to be limits of some kind on these auxiliary activities - we would all agree that someone who does so much alternative work that they can't teach their classes or adequately do their normal job is having problems with time allocation. The general question is, how should a university manage these situations - how are they identified, how are they mitigated, and what are the consequences if someone is knowingly going over the line (e.g., spending three working days per week running the day to day operations of a startup company rather than doing their academic job)? Things get particularly complicated when you factor in disciplines that basically demand external work (architecture, business school), and the increasingly common practice of special appointments at foreign universities. If anyone has suggestions of universities with what they think are especially good approaches (or lousy ones, for that matter) to this issue, please post in the comments.

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