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The moonlighting professor

The pros, the cons and the complications of taking on a little extra work on the side


Fifteen or 20 years ago, the issue of professors working outside the university wasn’t all that involved: administrations tolerated it, and a minority of faculty performed a minimal amount of such work, viewing it as a hobby on the side or a source of professional development. But today, more than a few professors act as key consultants for corporations, and the entangling research sponsorships, technology transfer and partnership arrangements are commonplace. In short, the simple days are gone.

To respond to this new reality, the University of British Columbia two years ago became among the first in Canada to update its policy on conflict of interest and conflict of commitment. A number of others are taking a second look, including the University of Toronto, which this year consolidated all of its policies in this area.

Another sign of change is that administrations today often encourage, rather than tolerate, professorial moonlighting. “We recognize that outside activity is healthy and in most cases it’s quite consistent with the university’s mission,” says Jason Bechtel, counsel in the office of the vice-president, research, at U of T. “It’s managing to balance that with the accountability and the public trust that, as an institution in the receipt of public funding, we must have.”

As Mr. Bechtel’s statement suggests, professors who practise moonlighting present a mixed bag for a university. There are certainly advantages. Having faculty on the payroll who are also in demand by government or industry is a sign of prestige that can attract good students and boost a school’s stature.

There’s an added bonus when their work generates media exposure, says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who appears on national television and writes articles for high-status publications like the New York Times and Washington Post. “To the extent that universities live and die on the prestige game,” says Dr. Troy, “when you have McGill experts speaking about issues, and ‘McGill University’ is right there on the television screen or in the newspaper, it makes a difference.”

Administrators tend to agree with that. “Such activities keep our professors current on developments in the field and also help transfer our knowledge and expertise to working professionals,” observes H.E.A. (Eddy) Campbell, vice-president, academic, at Memorial University.

Up-to-date, practical experience can also make a scholar better at the day job. “You’re a better teacher and a better researcher if you’re solving real problems at real sites,” asserts Bernie Kueper, a civil engineering professor at Queen’s University who consults in his area of specialty, contaminant hydrogeology (the study of contaminants below the ground surface and their clean-up).

“Students are much more impressed by a war story from an arbitration case than they are by an article addressed to other academics,” adds Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of UBC’s Sauder School of Business, whose outside activities included stints as a labour arbitrator. “Doing this work gave me insights into the distinction between what I was reading in books and journals and what was actually happening in the workplace,” he says. “And, to be frank, the money was attractive.”

And it’s the money, and related, sticky issues, that can cause problems for one’s peers and the administration. Outside work activities heighten the possibility of abuses, such as using university facilities and students for private work. “We do not want a situation where a faculty member uses a graduate student as cheap labour for a company,” says Hubert Lai, UBC’s university counsel and a key player in developing the institution’s policy on conflict of interest and conflict of commitment.

For many administrators, the biggest concern seems to be time. Universities often issue guidelines about how much time should be spent on outside work, and often expect faculty members to report how much of this work they’re doing and sometimes to name the firms that are employing them. “A small percentage of our faculty can be tempted to spend too much time on outside professional activity,” says Dr. Campbell of Memorial.

UBC, for its part, revised its policies to strike a balance between safeguarding against conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment while still encouraging faculty to participate in outside activities that advance the university mission and interests of society, says Dr. Lai. The policy was meant to bring the university in line with the policies of the three major research granting agencies in Canada and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. For the first time, the conflict-of-interest policies also apply to the area of research.

UBC also created a conflict of interest committee and put in place a disclosure, reporting and assessment structure. Significantly, it created an electronic filing system that allows faculty to log on, file and update their disclosures. “If anybody asks ‘What did professor so and so disclose?’we can go back and find it – we don’t have to rifle through ancient filing cabinets that are scattered all across the university,” says Mr. Lai. “It’s as important for faculty members as it is for the university. … When they make a disclosure, this is insulating them from criticism after the fact.”

U of T’s consolidated policies are aimed at dealing with possible conflicts of interest without stifling innovation. “As long as a potential conflict can be managed, it’s not a conflict anymore, and it can present opportunities that work for a university and its students,” says counsel Mr. Bechtel.

U of T’s new statement on conflict of interest and conflict of commitment pulls together policies that relate to time spent on outside work, supervision of students and a host of related issues into a single reference point. The more you can simplify the administrative bureaucracy, adds Mr. Bechtel, “the better compliance you’ll have.”

Besides conflicts, there are other potential pitfalls for the academic. While outside consulting is commonplace and looked on favourably in applied fields like business and engineering, in many other disciplines a moonlighting professor risks being seen as less than a serious scholar.

“I was once in a hiring meeting in the history department where the department chairman asked someone in a non-neutral tone, ‘Are you the kind of person who will try to get on radio and television and make comments about politics?'” recalls McGill’s Dr. Troy with a laugh. “I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘Is this directed at me?'”

There’s also the potential liability of venturing beyond the protection of the university. Dr. Troy says that after publishing his first op-ed article in the Montreal Gazette years ago, a man sent a lawyer who offered Dr. Troy the choice between an apology plus $50,000 or a libel lawsuit. Neither the newspaper nor the university offered support. “I went to McGill, asked for help, and got zilch,” he complains, noting that the school told him he was a freelancer in this matter. Dr. Troy held his ground and the man and his issue disappeared. He advises a thorough knowledge of libel laws.

In fields such as medicine and engineering, academics who take on outside work may want to consider liability insurance. Dr. Kueper, the contaminant hydrogeologist at Queen’s, says he looked into insurance for errors and omissions and liability but found that in addition to very high premiums, the policies excluded coverage on the release of contaminants into the environment, which made them useless to him. He discloses his lack of insurance to his clients up front, and admits that he’s taking personal risk.

And for moonlighters, just as for the administration, a major drawback is how the outside work can eat into the day job. “Time, more than anything else, it’s just time,” says Karan Singh, a computer scientist at U of T who does computer animation for major movie studios. “I supervise eight students, and just being able to find the time is a big thing.”

Because of this, a common piece of advice for new faculty in all fields is to consider outside work only after they have experience, reputation and tenure. “Unless the consulting you’re doing is actively increasing your publication and research record, you don’t get any brownie points for the extra cash you’re making by doing work on the side,” says Dr. Singh.

Dr. Kueper notes that once you do start consulting or doing other outside work, time management becomes a very big issue. Always make your university teaching and research your top priority, he says, and be prepared for less personal time. “You have to decide, ‘Am I willing to make that personal sacrifice so that I can do some outside consulting, or am I going to say no to the consulting so that I can have more hours available for my family?’ And that’s a personal decision.”

The retired Dr. Thompson says he worked out a system that seems to strike the right balance: never spend earnings from outside work on fundamental expenses like mortgage payments or utility bills. “If you do, then you become locked to this other source of income, and then you start making comprises,” says Dr. Thompson. “Don’t get too wrapped up in this, and keep in mind who sends your pay check every two weeks.”

What a coup

When it comes to adding prestige to the institution, nothing can match a Nobel Prize… but there’s no need to sniff at Hollywood.

Karan Singh, who co-directs the Dynamic Graphics Project lab in U of T’s computer science department, designed animation software for a private firm before joining U of T. Two years ago, he and several colleagues picked up an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for Ryan. A lot of the technical effects were done in Dr. Singh’s lab at the university, and several students worked on the project, with Dr. Singh and the students participating for their research, not for money.

When major studios like Disney and Dreamworks come calling, Dr. Singh still enjoys keeping a foot in his field. “It helps me keep a pulse on what’s happening in the industry,” says Dr. Singh.

Tim Johnson
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