It is 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and the sky is already black. But the soft, warm light in the mahogany-walled Eliot library makes bearable the early end to the day. In the back left corner sits the only other student in the room. Headphones in, back straight, face calm, she has positioned her pen on a fresh sheet of lined paper, ready to take notes on her assigned reading. From far away, it’s easy to recognize which textbook she is perusing. The hard cover, the white and red color scheme, are both so familiar—even for someone who has never taken the course she is studying for. It is Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics,” the main text for his celebrity course: “Ec 10.”
Mankiw is one of many professors who has extended his expertise to endeavors beyond the classroom walls, and he’s not alone. Professors from all disciplines actively engage in pursuits that aren’t always student focused. They write books. They appear as political commentators on news shows. They advise government officials. They play music. They run nonprofits.
Commenting on Harvard professors’ involvement in other activities outside of the classroom, Jennifer L. Martin ’13 says, “I’m for it. I don’t think that a professor should put their interests or goals on hold just because they’ve decided to teach. And if the research or work they have chosen to do happens to relate to the subject matter of the class, I think it can only heighten the learning experience. It helps to really show students like myself how what we are learning in class translates into the real world.”
But some are slightly more hesitant about faculty participating in “extramural interactions with industry and other external constituencies”—as outside engagements are called in the eighteen-page official Harvard University Policy on Individual FinancialConflicts of Interest for Persons Holding Faculty and Teaching Appointments. While in some cases other work can enhance the learning and teaching experiences of students and professors, it’s logical to question whether or not these involvements might detract from professors’ focus on the students.
How does outside work (especially of the political variety) affect objectivity toward subjects being taught? What is the right balance—how much energy can a professor devote to students when he or she is splitting time between other engagements? And where do professors’ priorities lie?
THE RIGHT RATIO
As illustrated by one student’s experience, learning from a professor with external commitments has its pros and cons. According to a junior concentrating in Human Evolutionary Biology who preferred to remain nameless for this article and is currently taking a cross-listed course (technically co-taught by Harvard Medical School professors) at MIT on drug development, the effects are twofold. Her professor, Anthony J. Sinskey, is the co-founder of bioscience company Metabolix, which is focused on providing sustainable solutions for the world demand for plastics, chemicals, and energy. He also happens to be on the board of Tepha, Inc., a medical device firm that employs biomaterial technology.
“Long story short,” she says, “he brings total credibility to what he teaches because he’s proven himself to be successful in the real-life industry. Plus, he can talk about real situations and examples between investors, boards of directors, researchers, etc. that are drawn from his real experiences. He definitely brings what would potentially be dry material to life.”
She identifies the drawbacks, saying “To be honest, I do feel like the professors aren’t great teachers, per se. They’ve all done and are doing incredible things in the pharma world and so the experiences are great to hear about. But while they could qualify for ‘Best Pharma Director’ they would never qualify for ‘Best Professor.’”
To avoid professors’ “extramural” engagements from compromising their abilities to teach to the best of their abilities, and to prevent the potential diminishing of the school’s “reputation and integrity,” Harvard’s administration is careful to establish certain rules pertaining to what is and is not appropriate behavior outside of the classroom; the section of the Conflict of Interest Policy document that addresses the “instruction and advising of students” notes, “A faculty member’s outside financial interests should not adversely influence his or her instruction, guidance, or supervision of students, trainees, or post-doctoral fellows.”
While this states a clear position on the issue, it doesn’t exactly provide specifics, something that professors determine for themselves on a case-by-case basis. Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology describes the process behind finding this balance: “If you focus more on the outside than your job as a professor at Harvard, then question it. But the job description is complicated. You have to teach but you also have to interact with the world. Harvard’s mission : make the world a better place. To do that we must engage with the world. What’s the right ratio, I don’t know.”
Despite the open-ended nature of this practice, Professor Jeffrey A. Miron, director of undergraduate studies for Economics, voices a need for this type of freedom. “If the university wanted to have a policy that said that [it] reserves the right to veto certain types of external acts of public activities, that [it] wants to vet op-eds before you submit them or something like that, I think the university should be legally allowed to have such a policy ... But I think it would be insane for a university to have such a policy because a lot of very talented people will not want to be academics if they’re going to feel muzzled.”
The difficult part, of course, comes from negotiating the divide between being a professor and cultivating “outside financial interests” at the same time.
On a clear, nippy Veterans Day, the doors to Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center are locked. All is silent except for the whisper of red and brown leaves and the deep sigh of the shuttle as it comes to a sluggish stop outside Lamont. At least from the outside, the glare of the November sun on the windows and the glass entrance makes the Humanities Center seem dark and completely empty. But inside it is a different story. The toasty, book-laden office of Homi K. Bhabha—Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and Senior Advisor on the Humanities to the President and Provost—is open for business. After entering the building (with some difficulty, of course) and even before stepping foot into his ground-floor office, his voice becomes audible. It is immediately clear from the echo that Bhabha and his assistant are the only ones home. Bhabha’s distinctive voice, mellifluous, rich, smooth like hot tar, spreads throughout the entire space. He is ending a phone call with a friend, sending his “warm regards.” Just as I reach his ground-floor office, he hangs up, stands, all the words on his “I Love Bombay” t-shirt fully visible, grasps my hand tightly, nods, and winks. No need for a verbal “hello.” The sincerity of his greeting is all in his gestures. Sitting down once more in his desk chair, he folds his left leg over the right, smooths back his salt and pepper hair with a flat palm, and begins to talk.
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