As online teaching and learning become more widespread, it is important to consider how to preserve and expand the University’s core teaching mission. New online instructional opportunities, including the University’s founding partnership with Coursera, the web platform for massive open online courses (commonly known as MOOCs), may create the potential for conflicts of interest that did not arise in the past. In the past year, (Almanac April 24, 2012) we have consulted across the University to clarify the ways in which our existing policies relating to conflicts of interest or commitment apply to new circumstances presented by online education. The draft guidelines below have been developed in consultation with the Council of Deans, the Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs, the Faculty Senate Committee on Administration, the Faculty Advisory Committee on Open Learning, the Office of General Counsel, and department chairs, division heads, and research deans across Penn’s twelve schools. We welcome further comments and suggestions from the Penn community; please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than June 28, 2013.
–Vincent Price, Provost
–Edward Rock, Senior Advisor to the President and Provost; Director of Open Course Initiatives
Application of the University’s Conflict of Interest Policy to Online Teaching
The University of Pennsylvania’s Conflict of Interest Policy for Faculty Members (§II.E.10 in the Handbook for Faculty and Academic Administrators) (the “Policy”), available at http://provost.upenn.edu/uploads/media_items/ii-e-10-conflict-of-interest-policy-for-faculty.original.pdf ), provides guidance on two key obligations:
- All employees are required to conform to the mores and ethical standards of the University and the rules promulgated to enforce them.
- Employment as a faculty member presumes a primary commitment of time and intellectual resources to the academic mission of the University and its functioning as a community.
There are several longstanding and fundamental principles that emerge from this policy:
- A faculty member’s primary professional obligation is to the University. This includes both a primary commitment of time and effort to University activities and a commitment not to compete with the University without advance permission.
- The scope of this obligation is broad, in that it includes not engaging in extramural activities that conflict with the University’s “outstanding or prospective commitments for teaching and research.” (Policy II.2; emphasis added.)
- With regard to teaching, this has always meant that faculty members may not teach elsewhere without advance permission.
- With regard to faculty business engagements with outside firms or groups, the Policy makes clear that a faculty member may not take on outside assignments that might be “suitable and appropriate activities for execution within the University” (Policy III) without first offering that opportunity to the University and receiving University permission.
- Because of the broad scope of the Policy, it is critical that faculty members make early and full disclosure to their department chair and dean of any situation or proposed engagement that potentially raises a conflict of interest.
In any case that potentially raises a conflict of interest, this early and full consultation with the department chair and dean is critically important. Because the University has no interest in unnecessarily constraining faculty activities, there will be many instances in which the University declines to pursue the project, determines that it does not conflict with other University activities, and grants permission to the faculty member to proceed on his or her own. In some of these cases, the University may ask the faculty member to make clear that he or she is acting in a personal capacity and, in order to avoid implication of University sponsorship or endorsement, disclaim University connection with the activity, not include the faculty member’s University affiliation, or comply with other conditions.
In applying the University’s policy, we seek to further the foundational principle that faculty members make a “primary commitment of time and intellectual resources to the academic mission of the University and its functioning as a community.” (Policy I) As faculty members, our primary professional duties are to Penn, and outside professional activities should not conflict with our obligations to our students, colleagues, and the University as a whole. On the other hand, as the University has made online learning a part of its mission, there may be situations that, while not problematic in the past, will raise new concerns.
The University’s developing commitment to online teaching initiatives has two key implications. First, teaching online has become part of the “University’s outstanding or prospective commitments for teaching and research.” Just as a faculty member may not agree to teach at another university without the University’s permission, so too a faculty member may not agree to teach elsewhere in cyberspace without permission. Second, because the University is developing and offering a growing array of online programs, ranging from traditional for-credit courses for enrolled students to short modules for the general public, many activities that previously might have been outside of the University’s sphere are now within its operations. Whether or not the University’s online programs are intended to or do produce revenues, the University may decide that parallel activities that faculty members propose to conduct outside the University would compete or conflict with University initiatives and may deny permission for such activities on that basis.
Illustration 1: Prof. X, a faculty member of the School of Arts & Sciences, teaches a well-regarded course. Prof. X is approached by an outside company, GreatCourses4U, that offers to develop and distribute an online, DVD, and/or audio version of Prof. X’s lectures, targeted to a general, educated audience. What obligations does Prof. X have under the University’s policies?
Analysis: The core issue presented in Illustration 1 is that GreatCourses4U competes directly with the University’s online efforts in a way that did not arise in the past. As a result, the Policy imposes a variety of obligations on faculty members that did not arise before the University expanded into online learning. First, Prof. X is under an obligation to disclose the nature and terms of the proposed arrangement in advance. Second, Prof. X should explain why the activity is better conducted through GreatCourses4U than through the University’s partnership with Coursera or other online initiatives such as the Learning Commons of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. Third, under the Policy, the University may decide that if the course is to be offered, it should be offered as part of its Coursera initiative or through LPS or another University initiative. Alternatively, the University may decide that it does not wish to offer the course, that delivering it through GreatCourses4U would not conflict with other University activities, and therefore may allow Prof. X to pursue the opportunity with GreatCourses4U. Finally, if a judgment is made that Prof. X’s course would conflict with a university priority, permission may be withheld entirely or granted subject to specific conditions.
Illustration 2: Prof. Y, a faculty member of the Wharton School, teaches a well-regarded course. Prof. Y is approached by an outside company, CheapExecEd, with an offer to develop and distribute an online course to be offered to middle managers as part of a new, on-site executive education program. What obligations does Prof. Y have under the University’s policies?
Analysis: Illustration 2 presents a slight variation on Illustration 1 in that there is a sharper conflict with an existing and evolving School program. Wharton provides executive education in a variety of formats and contexts. CheapExecEd is thus a competitor or potential competitor. Under the Policy, Prof. Y cannot enter into an agreement with CheapExecEd without Wharton’s permission, and Wharton may properly withhold permission if it determines that doing so is appropriate.
Illustration 3: Prof. Q, a faculty member of the Perelman School of Medicine, is invited to deliver a lecture on her research to a collaborator’s class at another university. The lecture is to be recorded and made available online only to the class members.
Analysis: Ordinarily, giving a lecture at another university, whether as part of a class or in a faculty workshop, does not raise any issues under the Policy. While it could be considered “teaching at another university,” sharing one’s research in this way is such a core part of the academic enterprise that it either does not fall within the scope of the Policy or is subject to an implicit de minimis exception. The recording of the lecture and the posting to a class website does not change this analysis.
If, however, the other university asks Prof. Q to grant the right to include the lecture in an online course, Prof. Q should seek guidance from the department chair and dean. When a lecture becomes part of another university’s online course or other online offering, it could potentially conflict with online courses offered or contemplated by the Perelman School of Medicine, and thus it could raise an issue under the Policy.
There are myriad intermediate cases. In considering whether online activities conflict with the University’s priorities, faculty, deans and chairs should consider, inter alia, the following factors:
- Implications for access to materials by Penn students and the public at large.
- Hosting of materials by or for another educational organization or by Penn.
- Potential reputational risks.
- Implications for time and other commitments to the University.
- Potential for competition with Penn’s online platforms or educational offerings.
- Potential for time-limited arrangements to permit exploratory opportunities.