The Producers Problem
One of my favorite movies is The Producers, and here I mean the original version from 1968 directed by Mel Brooks and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (not the 2005 re-make starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). For those of you unfamiliar with this comedy, here is the basic plot. A ne’er-do-well Broadway director (Mostel) and his accountant (Wilder) hatch a scheme to make money by producing a play that flops. The duo will go to backers and raise thousands more than is needed to produce a play. Of course, they’ll have to sell more than 100% of the profits to raise all of that money, but as long as the show flops –preferably closes on opening night– the backers will expect neither the return of their invested principal nor any profits. The duo can take the remaining money and head to Rio de Janeiro. Ah, but if the play is a hit then they’re in big trouble, because they’ve promised much more than 100% of the profits to the backers. Of course, they end up inadvertently producing a hit musical comedy (improbably titled “Springtime for Hitler”), which lands them in jail for fraud, where they start producing and over-selling yet another musical (more appropriately titled “Prisoners of Love”). That’s Mel Brooks.
So what does The Producers have to do with ethics (other than accounting ethics)? Well, there are times when we might be offering more than 100% of our time and attention professionally. It’s rarely if ever done illegally, but ethical lines can get crossed and faculty can get into all sorts of hot water. One way this can happen is with outside appointments, that is, appointments faculty may take up outside of the home institution appointment. That includes everything from a visiting professorship at a foreign university to a research affiliation across the street with sister college in the home university. If there’s an appointment outside your home institution, there’s almost certainly someone back at your home institution asking whether (and, perhaps, assuming that) your outside appointment is taking you away from research, teaching and service you owe the home institution. So this month, I’d like to discuss this problem –The Producers problem—and think of ways to keep from crossing lines, keep from getting into hot water with colleagues, and keep from promising (or appearing to promise) more than 100% of your time and attention to research, teaching and service.
It’s Nice Outside
Aside from the Church, the Academy is probably the closest thing to a global community. You can go almost anywhere in the world, find a university, and draw an invitation to live, learn, teach and write temporarily. Indeed, one of the perquisites of an academic life is the occasional opportunity to step away from the home institution and visit another near or far. Visits during sabbatical leave are typical. After six years of service, a professor applies for and receives permission from her home institution to take a year’s leave. The professor also applies for and is given a visiting faculty position at another university, often in another country. The professor rents her home, packs up spouse and kids, goes abroad, sets up a home overseas, enrolls the kids in local schools, comes to an understanding about what the trailing spouse will do, and then goes to work in a new place for a year. I did just that in 2010-2011 when I took sabbatical leave from the University of Minnesota and went with my family to the UK where I took up a year-long research fellowship at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. It was a great year for me professionally and family-wise.
Outside appointments come up in other ways. An organizational theorist sits in a business school but takes a courtesy appointment in the sociology department located in another college. An international business professor sits in a US business school but takes a research affiliate position in a European business school as a condition of receiving a European Union research grant. A business and public policy professor takes a senior fellow position at a public policy think-tank in Washington, London or Tokyo. The difference with the sabbatical leave scenario is that these alternatives do not involve the faculty member taking leave from the home institution. She’s still on the home-institution rolls with all of the pay and benefits and all of the research, teaching and service obligations.
At my home institution, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, there are policies to guide and grade such non-leave outside appointments at foreign universities. For Carlson faculty with a “particularly strong international reputation,” the assumed appointment will be at the visiting professor level. Other lower-grade outside appointments include visiting lectureships or adjunct professorships. I took advantage of these policies to accept a visiting professorship at Oxford’s Saïd Business School running from the end of last April to mid-June. Again, it was a great opportunity for me to contribute to and learn from a different research community. And that seems to be the overall aim of non-leave outside appointments. Home and outside institutions benefit from faculty exchange and collaboration on research, teaching and service initiatives.
But Will You Miss Library Committee Meetings?
So outside appointments are enjoyable, educational, and mutually beneficial to home and outside institutions. What’s the problem? There can be several. Those same Carlson School guidelines on outside appointments explicitly state some limitations on non-leave outside appointments. The guidelines also refer to limiting terms lurking in different offices and on different websites of the University of Minnesota. For example, references to outside appointments in the Carlson guidelines are paired with references to “tenured” faculty –perhaps assistant professors need not apply. There are also references to the maximum number of days that faculty may “consult” for other organizations. There is even a conflict-of-interest bar on taking outside appointments involving teaching that might contribute to a program that “competes” with Carlson for students. Then there’s reference to other University of Minnesota policies limiting outside appointments. It gets complicated pretty quickly, but the over-riding principle in working through these guidelines seems to be this: You can take an outside appointment when not on leave if it is good for your professional career, if it is good for the reputation of your home institution, and if it doesn’t leave you short in terms of fulfilling your home-institution duties.
That last “and” can be problematic. Permission to take a non-leave outside appointment usually starts with a conversation with your department chair, then with your academic dean, then perhaps with your dean. Then there’s a written proposal for permission to take an outside appointment, then completion of various forms, then review by that same, chair, academic dean and dean, and perhaps a provost or two to see that university guidelines have been observed. It’s a people process like so many others in a university community.
And different people bring different perspectives to the process. A department chair responsible for covering courses with instructors may ask whether this outside appointment will lead to class cancellations because a visit to the outside institution during term was extended due to a pilot strike. A dean may ask whether the outside appointment will lead to absences from critical committee meetings because they conflict with periodic briefing sessions you have with a state governor dependant on policy recommendations from your think tank. If your departmental faculty colleagues know about your outside appointment request, they might wonder –and wander into the department chair’s office to wonder– if you’ll still be available to do the “drudge work” of service on, say, the library committee, the curriculum committee, the you-name-it-but-what-does-it-really-do committee. It’s a people process and those people have an interest, a self interest that might lead them to conclude that your outside appointment will overload you –be more than 100% of your time and attention—and force them to shoulder some of that overload. It’s one version of The Producers problem.
It’s a Hit! And It’s Mine (Not Yours)
And it’s a problem even if nothing comes from the outside appointment, that is, if it’s a “flop” in terms of research, teaching and service outputs. But the outside appointment could be a “hit” producing new journal articles and other outputs valuable to institutions seeking recognition, enhanced reputation and the financial support following both. Fantastic, but now your “backers” want what they think is theirs. The home and outside institution both want to count your publications as their own for purposes of measuring historical faculty research productivity and asking for future government-funded research grants. Both want to claim intellectual property rights to the software algorithm you developed, copyrighted and patented in connection with that new research and those new journal articles. Chances are, both want 100% but you may not have 100% to hand out to both. Here is another version of The Producers problem.
As in the movie, you might choose to keep one institution or the other (or both) in the dark. Keeping information from your home institution regarding outputs from outside appointments –including how much you were paid under that appointment—is likely to get you into a lot of hot water, perhaps even to the point of legal action leading to discipline and or dismissal/termination. Better to let home and outside institution know everything, then let them sort it out, dean to dean, provost to provost. Here are two other guides to follow as you disclose.
Two Guides: Make Forward And Be Forward
Here are two other guides worth considering as you disclose to home and outside institutions. One suggestion is to “make forward” teaching and service work in advance of seeking an outside appointment. It’s an easier conversation with a department chair when you can point to a surplus of teaching credits and or committee work. “Making forward” means you are less likely to fall behind and have to “make up” teaching and service obligations during the term of the outside appointment.
Here’s another suggestion. “Be forward” with that same department chair (and associate dean, dean, provost, etc.) about everything you can regarding the proposed outside appointment. If there’s a letter or memorandum detailing the terms of the outside appointment, including terms related to expected work, compensation and the treatment of any output, just give it to the those home-institution decision makers. Let them contact the author. Let them draw their own conclusions about what the outside appointment will do for you, for the home institution, and for your ability to discharge other home-institution obligations. If, in the end, they think the outside appointment will push you past 100%, then maybe it isn’t worth taking. Being forward will help everyone make an informed decision, which is then more likely to be in the affirmative.
It’s a privilege to work in an institution dedicated to creating and disseminating knowledge. It’s a gold-plated privilege with occasional opportunities to change institutional venue, be part of a different learning community, and bring new insights back home. Make and be forward as you take advantage of that gold-plated privilege, and as you give it all 100% (and no more) of your time and attention.
And leave the comedy to Mel Brooks.
Please address your comments to:
Paul M. Vaaler
Department of Strategic Management
Carlson School of Management
University of Minnesota
321 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Tel (612) 625-4951
Fax (612) 626-1316
 The guidelines are published in a document entitled: “Carlson School Policy and Procedures On ‘Visiting and Adjunct Appointments of Carlson School Faculty in Foreign Universities during Their Full-Time Appointment Periods.’” Contact me for a copy.
 Here’s the website: http://www.fpd.finop.umn.edu/groups/ppd/documents/policy/outsideconsulting_pol.cfm.