Speaking Out

Independent and Critical?

A friend in another department of the University recently confessed to me that his consulting income was ten times as large as his University salary--even though he worked within the University limit of one day per week--and he expressed certainty that others in his department made his own outside income seem quite modest. (Obviously such windfalls benefit only that fraction of the faculty whose services have a strong external market demand.)

My friend's remarks suggest a number of important moral and practical questions about the growth of faculty outside interests.

The big moral questions concern, first, the locus of the faculty (and administration) commitment and loyalties, and, second, the role of the university in society.

Is the tenure system not based on a model according to which the faculty owes loyalty and a primary commitment to the university, with the security of tenure offered in exchange? In contrast, the operative model seems to be that the faculty "owe" the university their time, and the university allows us a part (at Penn, "one day a week") to be used for our own private affairs. If faculty members draw far more income from outside consulting than from university salary, is their primary loyalty and responsibility not now to their external paymasters? Is this not likely to display itself in a shrinking commitment to university work, including teaching?

Furthermore, as a large fraction of the faculty, in the humanities and elsewhere, does not have major alternative income sources, is the resultant polarization of income and division of interest and outlook not unhealthy for an academic community?

In theory, the university is an independent institution which carries out a socially important critical function. Can this societal purpose be realized if large numbers of faculty are on the payroll of dominant institutions possibly needing to be criticized? Can they bite the hands that feed them? Is the tenure system not in place to protect those serving a critical function rather than servants of power (who do not need such protection)? If the university as a whole is increasingly geared to being funded by parties with a vested commercial and ideological interest in shaping university intellectual activities, is the university itself not losing its autonomy and ability to function as a base of social criticism? (These points are discussed in detail in the recent book by Larry Soley, Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia, Boston, South End Press, 1995.)

As a practical matter, the conflict of interest rules of the university seem seriously deficient as a means of preventing a gross displacement of faculty loyalty and effort. The rule that the faculty can work only one day a week on outside activities is unenforceable, depending on the interpretation and word of the individual in question, and fails to address the possible financial imbalance that may compromise loyalty and stifle critical capability. A more effective rule would limit faculty outside income to perhaps 50% of annual salary, any excess being obligatorily turned over to the primary employer and locus of the primary commitment, the university. Such a rule would no doubt cause some exit from the university by those with huge earning power that is not a function of honorific university title, but those remaining would be likely to put greater time and effort into teaching, and they would be part of a more truly independent academic community.

-- Edward S. Herman
Emeritus Professor of Finance


Tuesday, December 5, 1995
Volume 42 Number 14

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