Conflicts of Interest

It may come as a surprise to learn that the duties and responsibilities of college faculty are only loosely defined.  My contract with Tulane, for example, is less than two pages long.  And while it does set out the courses I was slated to teach when it was issued, my salary, and the benefits I’m entitled to, it says almost nothing about how I’m expected to spend my time and what my obligations to the university and its students actually are.  Instead, it redirects me to Tulane’s Faculty Handbook, a 176-page tome that also fails to mention the promised details.  There I am pointed down yet another path and told to consult the guidelines set by my school and department.  Unfortunately, the School of Liberal Arts’ website only has materials that focus on policies from the students’ perspective, and even after three years I’ve never received a copy of my department’s handbook.

Barring that specific guidance, my discretion in deciding how to do my job on a day-to-day basis is virtually limitless.  This is hardly ever a problem under normal circumstances: I’m an expert in my field with a decade of experience, so I can reasonably be trusted to do my work in accordance with the standards of my discipline.   But things can get messy pretty quickly, especially when you’re dealing with students who require extra attention. Just consider the following scenarios.  If someone misses an exam due to a serious family emergency, how lax should I be with my policy that they make up any missed work within three days?  When a student pesters me to change a grade he doesn’t like even after I’ve explained it, to what extent should I–or must I–entertain his appeals?  And what’s the appropriate response when a student-athlete who’s failing my course through lack of effort is about to lose his eligibility–and his university housing–if he has to drop?

In each of these situations I’m forced to make decisions about a) to whom I owe my first duty of loyalty, and b) what is in the best interest of that entity.  Without clear guidance from my contract or respective handbooks, however, I often have to fly blind.

Over time–and especially from studying the legal concept of agency in management and business law–I’ve grown more aware of the ethical issues that arise from the vague terms used in academic contracts.  The problems are often serious, and once you begin to think about them in contractual terms, you realize there are countless situations in which a university’s failure to delineate professors’ obligations to the school and to its students lead to fundamental conflicts of interest.  Clearly this is something that requires greater thought.

Ultimately, I think there are three answers to the ‘duty of loyalty’ question that potentially have merit: the students, the hiring department, and the college.

Let’s start with the students. Their relationship to a college is peculiar.  On the one hand, they pay tuition and choose to attend because they want the school to make them better in some substantive way–by teaching them content and/or by nurturing their development as people.  This implies a relationship of inferiority: the students admit to knowing less than the school’s experts and contract them to remedy their deficiencies in the areas they choose to study.  Conversely, the school knows more than the student, and is justified in deciding what is in his or her best interest–at least within the ambit of their academic program.

On the other hand, what they pay amounts to king’s ransom for this privilege. Annual tuition at Tulane–excluding room and board–is currently $51,010 per year.  Assuming a student takes a standard five courses per semester, this means they end up paying $137.86 for each session of their courses that meet three times a week  (= 37 classes per semester). Taking other associated costs back into account, a year at Tulane will set you back a little bit more than the list price of a 2017 BMW M3.

For those who have accepted this deal, there is a reasonable expectation of a luxury experience.  After all, these students could have attended a community college or public university, but they chose to invest in Tulane–a private institution that is rightly proud to boast of its recent jump in the college rankings.  It was quite surprising, though–at least to me–to find that the admissions website doesn’t mention the faculty at all when explaining what differentiates Tulane from other institutions (speaking of what makes it special, they emphasize other ways in which It’s Different). Still, I suspect most students–or at least their parents–will also view this exchange as one of access.  Tulane provides opportunities to learn directly from experts who are at the top of their field, and no other school has exactly the collection of scholars that work for this institution.  Implicit in this exchange is an expectation that those experts will cultivate and respond to students on demand.  After all, they’re paying for a luxury experience, and the main product on offer is the ability to engage with and be shaped by world-class professors (the “consumer mentality” of students is part and parcel of this, but that’s another issue that’s been dealt with plenty by other people).

For better or worse, many students now also view college as a type of career training, and what they expect is to a job.  Tuition is–at least to this group–not so much a ticket that grants them access to people or personal formation as it is a simple exchange of money for the scrap of parchment that’s still the sine qua non for most white collar positions in the US.  These students generally care very little about what they learn or who they meet so long as they find their way into a career opportunity on the back end.

Okay, so realizing that this complex relationship exists, how are professors supposed to serve the best interests of their students?  Is it by teaching challenging courses that will help the students learn information and develop critical thinking skills?  Or by making things easy to they can gain access to a diploma with minimal resistance?  The answer to this isn’t as simple as it might initially seen.  Many of my students are now working full time and taking course overloads in an attempt to lower their debt burden by graduating early.   They’re very often very bright and want to be pushed, but can’t keep up with all their obligations.  When I entered graduate school I could safely assume that everyone I taught was a full-time student.  That simply isn’t true any more.  So is really right for me to push them in Roman history if it means they’ll fall behind in organic chemistry?  I just don’t know.

The second entity to whom a duty of loyalty might be owed is the department.  This is the  main division you were hired to support, and it’s expected that you’ll promote its interests over those of another division.  My chair, for example, would rightly be upset if I advised all my students to take courses in Spanish instead of Latin, or if I told them to take a history professor’s version of a course instead of the one that one of my colleagues teaches.  This duty of loyalty is also reinforced by circumstance: the existing members of the department are the people who actually hired you, and they’re usually your closest colleagues by nature of the fact that you work in the same discipline.

But figuring out what’s best for this entity can once again lead to different answers.  Since many department budgets are determined by the number of students taught, it may make benefit them most to teach massive, easy courses that put “meat in the seats.”  On the other hand, students who aren’t given a good foundation are unlikely to do well at upper levels, and that may have a negative impact on the number of majors you can enroll or graduate–another common metric of departmental health and usually a factor in a dean’s budgetary decisions.  Teaching more challenging courses will promote things at the upper level, and generally lead to a healthier field overall (inasmuch as you have better talent in the pipeline), but may create such a barrier at lower levels that an unacceptable number of people drop.  That can lead to courses getting cancelled, and if it happens across the board to an entire program being shuttered.  So, for example, my attrition rate in Roman history is probably much higher than it should be (my rosters are normally half-full by the drop deadline), but the students who finish the term often go on to be minors or majors and have an easy time in their other Classics courses.  Since my chair has never said anything to me about this I assume it’s not an issue, but I don’t really know for sure.  In any case, it’s probably not an equation I should be solving on my own.

The college is the last entity to consider, and the one that probably has the best claim to a professor’s loyalty: it’s the ultimate source of your paycheck, your affiliation with it is how you’re identified in professional contexts, and students tend to view you as an employee of the school rather than of your individual department. I have no doubt that if a dispute ever arose, the college would assert that professors should have put the interests of the whole ahead of any individual part–whether student, department, or themselves.

So let’s assume this is the case.  How do you actually promote the school’s interests as a professor if you’re not given specific guidance on how to do so?  The one asset that you have the greatest ability to influence is the school’s reputation.  Because of this, you hold a position of great trust: that reputation is what differentiates your college from others and thus allows it to attract the best talent (both faculty and students), to garner donations, and to charge whatever it does relative to its “peer institutions”–what people in business would call “the competition.”

So how do I promote Tulane’s school’s reputation?  Conducting research is one option.  Since ‘Tulane University’ will appear under my name in any publication or conference badge, doing good work that impresses people will bolster the school’s standing within the scholarly community.  Conversely, saying something stupid or making a fool of myself will make people think of it in a worse light.  Things get more complicated when we think about the classroom.  There, our answer will depend on what the school really views as its core identity.  Is it academic excellence?  If so, then the way I show my loyalty is by making sure that people who earn a diploma have demonstrated real knowledge in the area I’m responsible for.  This essentially means being a more demanding professor.  Sure, smaller course enrollments may be the short-term result of that decision, but it should lead to the school’s reputation improving over time as employers and the general public become more impressed by the students they see coming out of Tulane.  The problem is that the college doesn’t necessarily define itself by academic excellence.  Other metrics of success exist, such as the four- and six-year graduation rates and the number of students who make the honor roll.  If that’s what Tulane values–and the amount of money they invest in student support services suggests that it is–then I may actually serve the school better by making my courses easy in order to pad those numbers.  Again, guidance is limited and professors usually need to make these decisions (read: assumptions) for themselves.

Things get more confusing when these three interests butt heads.  My student-athlete from above is a great example.  If my main loyalty was to his academic interests, then I should have pushed him to withdraw from my course once it was clear that he wasn’t going to do the work needed to pass; after all, it would be far better for him to invest his energy in his other courses rather than wasting three hours a week pretending to pay attention to me.  But doing this would mean he would lose his eligibility, his scholarship, and his housing.  Athletics was clearly his reason for coming to Tulane, and a decision to push him out of my class would deprive him of the opportunities he had come here to seek through that avenue.  What about serving my department?  One student might not make a big difference in our overall numbers, but when money is tight anything can tip the scales of the dean’s budget.  So supporting the student’s academic interests could conceivably harm my department, and letting him stay enrolled–knowing that he would fail–would likely help it.

Still less clear was how to best support the university’s interest in this case.  Athletics no doubt wanted this young man on the field, where his performance could help the school promote itself to a wider audience.  Was I obligated to support that goal?  Perhaps.  But at the same time the school’s academic reputation was also at stake.  If this person was given a diploma without completing the work it signified, the meaning of that degree–which is to say Tulane’s reputation–would surely be harmed.  Add to that the risk of a scandal and NCAA fines if it ever came out that I let somebody pass solely to maintain his eligibility. But if the effect of one student was small, and the risk of detection minor, did it really make a difference?  Simply put, there were about a thousand competing interests.  And while I won’t tell you how the situation was resolved, I will say that Tulane never clarified how I should have handled it after it had been passed up the line.

I know things have already gotten long, but I need to make some nod to how all of this impacts contingent faculty.  While contractually speaking the duties of loyalty they owe are the same as any other professor, certain things complicate the equation even more.  For one thing, their jobs are often defined as a 100% teaching positions.  Unlike their tenure-line colleagues, they are not paid to do research and are often expressly barred from taking on “service” jobs such as advising students, working on committees, and running undergraduate clubs (though these things are sometimes still expected). Even though they teach more courses, therefore, they are given lower salaries.  Adjuncts and “Visitors” face the added pressure of being term-limited, which means their school will end their employment at a fixed time regardless of how well they perform.  With a limited financial upside and no real stake in the school, however, people in these positions have very little incentive to do any more than what is strictly required of them: they need to invest as much time as they can working to secure their next job–whether that means conducting research that will bolster their resume for the tenure track or seeking a new career and greener pastures.

That this system hasn’t suffered a spectacular collapse is to my mind a great miracle.  But even if that’s overstating things, it seems clear that higher education as a sector must do a better job of defining the relationships they want to exist between professors, students, and colleges.  Faculty make countless decisions every day that have alter their students’ lives and their college’s reputation.  While each one may appear insignificant in isolation, when taken together their impact is profound.

What worries me most is that these decisions are largely made on a case-by-case basis and without any real guidance.  By failing to define whom professors owe their first duty of loyalty, colleges effectively abdicate control over their reputations and expose themselves to unnecessary risk.  This is especially problematic in the case of contingent faculty.  Paid little and denied hope of continued employment, they have strong incentives to protect their own interests over those of their students, department, and school. That most do not is a testament to their passion for their field and their belief that their own success is less important than their service to others.  But this is no way for them to live, nor any way for schools to advance their mission.

In a time of great change, leaders across academia should take the time to reassess what roles their professors play and to clearly define their hierarchy of loyalties. Such a step seems desperately needed and would no doubt be of great benefit to all involved in the educational enterprise.


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