Harvey Weinstein’s defense lawyer or Winthrop House faculty dean — some argued Harvard Law School Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. could only choose one.
Sullivan decided to pursue both. But he ultimately ended up with neither.
Sullivan’s decision in January to represent the film producer and accused sexual harasser sparked a national debate about the potential disconnect between faculty members’ outside work and their responsibilities to students.
While particularly controversial on campus, Sullivan’s legal work was only the latest example of Harvard professors eschewing time with students for non-academic pursuits — and making money while doing it.
Though Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced May 11 he would not renew Sullivan’s appointment as faculty dean due to an “untenable” atmosphere in the House, some asked whether the criticism of Sullivan in part stemmed from him simply being absent from campus.
“I've wondered if this is part of the undertow that is pulling Ron Sullivan down,” former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said in an April interview. “There is this thing, ‘well, he's been away from Harvard. He’s supposed to be here for us 24/7,' which is not actually the way Harvard professors have ever been thought of.”
For years, outside activities have played a role in the lives of Harvard’s law professors and other faculty across the University’s schools.
Codified rules govern these side jobs, dictating the amount of time professors can devote to outside pursuits and curbing the potential for conflicts of interest.
Many faculty members who engage in activities outside the University say that such work is invaluable, providing a practical application of their research and ultimately benefiting their students. And the monetary incentives of these jobs remain a pull for professors — as well as a potential source of controversy.
In early 2015, Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe agreed to take on a legal case, one of many outside roles he has pursued during his time as a faculty member, including a position in the Obama Justice Department. This time, though, his decision caused an uproar.
For nearly half a million dollars, Peabody Energy retained Tribe to lead its legal opposition to an Environment Protection Agency regulation that would cut carbon dioxide emissions. Two of Tribe’s colleagues fired back at him on the Law School’s website, arguing that he was defending the indefensible.
“Were Professor Tribe’s name not attached to them, no one would take them seriously,” wrote Professors Richard J. Lazarus and Jody Freeman.
Tribe responded by citing his “lifelong devotion” to addressing the threat of climate change and his “admiration” for President Obama.
“I take my arguments very seriously indeed and hope, by bringing them into the public forum, that I will be able to help others understand why….I regretfully feel obliged to oppose their views,” he wrote.
Though many professors say they take on external jobs for non-monetary reasons, the opportunity to earn compensation on top of their Harvard salary remains appealing.
“To be candid, the income is not bad,” said Professor of Human Relations Jay W. Lorsch, who has consulted for multiple companies including Goldman Sachs and Shire Pharmaceuticals.
Famed antitrust scholar and Harvard Law School professor Phillip E. Areeda ’51 donated $5 million towards the school— the second largest contribution by an individual in the Law School’s history at the time. He had amassed his fortune in part by consulting for a number of major oil, automobile, insurance, and film companies, according to the New York Times.
The outside work that faculty members take on can draw scrutiny, even years after the fact.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took up dozens of legal cases — including one for a company facing potential liability over defective breast implants — while a professor at the Law School in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For her counsel, Warren charged as much as $675 per hour.
These faculty must navigate financial conflicts of interest that, according to Harvard’s official policy, can “corrode the University’s reputation” and “diminish its trustworthiness.”
“The University is cognizant that an individual’s relationships with outside enterprises can engender opportunities for personal gain or financial advantage that may be at odds with the primary obligations the individual assumes as a member of the Harvard faculty,” the policy reads.
But Harvard also profits off some faculty members’ outside work. Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Eugene I. Shakhnovich, who co-founded Vitae Pharmaceuticals with a colleague, George M. Whitesides, said he worked closely with Harvard’s Office of Technology Development to seek out new investors, and the University seemed “extremely positive” about his work.
Harvard’s assistance paid off: In 2016, Allergan purchased Vitae for $639 million. Having gained an equity position in the company because of Shakhnovich and Whiteside’s association with the Chemistry department, Harvard likely made a windfall.
Over the last few decades, multiple Harvard schools have standardized their guidelines surrounding faculty members’ work outside the University and tightened certain regulations to stem conflicts of interest.
Professor of Marketing V. Kasturi Rangan, who serves on the board of advisors of the nonprofit management consulting firm Bridgespan Group, said that the Business School’s procedures have become much more concrete since he arrived at Harvard. He said that in the 1990s, he learned what was considered off-limits from senior colleagues rather than a rulebook.
“When I joined the University, that code of conduct was sort of informal,” Rangan said. “But about 15 to 20 years ago, we actually formalized it. And that document was put together by a faculty committee.”
Former University Provost Steven E. Hyman said he oversaw a “very substantial process” in the mid-2000s to review Harvard’s policies on outside work, which he now believes is “pretty strict” overall.
“It involved all of the schools and lots of meetings and how to recognize that different professions have different rules and traditions, but also different financial opportunities,” Hyman said. “It was a very extensive process, but Harvard does have now across all of its schools a shared conflict of interest policy, which has relevant modifications school by school.”
Faculty members across the University, no matter their discipline, must submit financial disclosure forms to their respective schools, which administrators then scrutinize. Their outside work cannot exceed more than 20 percent of their total professional effort — though some schools have more stringent policies.
Since Harvard Medical School boasts more than 11,000 full-time faculty members across its teaching hospitals, an entire office comprising lawyers and other staff is responsible for inspecting financial disclosures.
Former Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier said the school has multiple mechanisms — including increasing oversight of concerning activities — to address potential conflicts of interest.
“There are instances where, when the staff looks at this, they say, ‘you know, this raises the question, either you are doing something that you shouldn’t do according to the rule, or we have some questions about this issue,’” Flier said.
Lewis acknowledged that professors’ outside positions can be “very hard to monitor,” but noted there is a “whole protocol” in place for approving such work.
“Generally, people are good about it,” Lewis said.
Faculty involvement with outside work varies significantly, depending on individual professors’ interests and the applicability of their research to the needs of private companies.
Shakhnovich said he believed his area of expertise is well-suited for private sector work.
“Chemistry is the most amenable to industrial applications,” he said. “It’s at the center of many aspects, for example, pharmaceutical development, material science development.”
Lorsch said outside work is simply “part of our life” at the Business School.
“I cannot tell you how many different research projects that I’ve been involved in or books that I’ve written that have had their genesis in research projects or consulting projects that I was working on,” he said.
Faculty members’ reasons for pursuing outside jobs are numerous, but every professor interviewed said they believed their work benefits their teaching and research at the University.
Law School Professor Mark Wu, a member of a think tank that provides policy advice for G20 leaders, called the interaction between the classroom and his outside work a “feedback loop.”
American Literature Professor Elisa New — who founded “Poetry in America,” a TV series that seeks to increase children’s exposure to poetry — wrote in an email that much of the material she produced for the initiative has translated to the classroom.
“I now offer much of the content I might once have delivered over 50 minutes from behind a podium in the form of multiple shorter video lectures that students can watch before they come to class,” she wrote. “This frees class time for discussion and also provides students a far richer experience than I could provide simply by lecturing.”
Rangan said that because business is an “applied science,” consulting and other outside activities are “immensely valuable” in supplementing his and many of his colleagues’ research.
“When I teach a particular case in class, I really know what’s going on at the particular location or museum or what’s happening with respect to social services, or how exactly the beneficiaries are on the ground,” Rangan said. “And my students benefit immensely from having virtual world practice.”
Law and Business School Professor Guhan Subramanian, a board director of automobile parts company LKQ Corporation, also spoke of a close connection between his private sector work and his teaching.
For instance, because LKQ’s annual shareholding meeting is “concurrent” with a corporate law class Subramanian leads, he believes he can offer students a more “salient” understanding of the real-world application of the course’s material.
“Having your research tested in real, real ways is useful because it helps you either validate or adjust your academic writing and your teaching based on what you’re seeing out there in the real world,” he said.
— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.
—Staff writer Connor W. K. Brown can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ConnorWKBrown.