Institutional Corruption, Conflicts of Interest and Commitment, and Online Courses

I am writing this post from a terrific conference on Institutional Financial Conflicts of Interest In Research Universities, hosted at Harvard Law by the Petrie-Flom Center and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

One set of fascinating questions that has been raised is when the university should reign in the ability of faculty members to take on directorships and other outside activities. While these issues have been well-known in the sciences and medicine, increasingly it has come home to roost in the law and other faculties. The Harvard Law School  recently adopted a new conflicts of interest policy, as part of a Harvard-wide revision of its policies.

Here is a question that has received less discussion from what I have seen, though it may become more pressing given Coursera, EdX, and other online teaching venues.  The New Yorker profile of my Harvard Business School colleague and world-renowned teacher Clayton Christensen reported that he has recorded videos lectures (complete with good-looking young men and women actors playing students and laughing at the right moments, what a perk!) for the University of Phoenix’s lecture series, for significant remuneration. Imagine that this series (or one of these other non-Harvard platforms) were to offer to pay half a million dollars to me to teach a 4-hour Civil Procedure (or health law or bioethics and the law course) that would in part mirror the teaching I do of the course at Harvard Law School. Should Harvard have a veto right over me doing so? Should it demand “a piece of the action” and revenue sharing agreements as a condition of letting me participate? After all, I am in some ways trading on my capitol for teaching at Harvard, and potentially also diluting the reputational value of Harvard instruction (the informercial would go “You don’t need to go to Harvard to get a lecture from a Harvard Prof! Only $9.99!”) How can the rules governing patent and other IP ownership in the  life and other sciences help us develop a sensible policy? Would or should things be different if I gave these lectures for free on YouTube rather than selling them? [Disclosure: Harvard DOES have a policy on conflicts of commitment, though I am unaware of it speaking specifically to these issues about online lectures, but happy to be corrected].

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