The Successful Side Business
How should a student approach his advisor who is too busy building a business to monitor his dissertation? Is it ethical for a professor to use university resources to build a private business? This scenario explores conflicts that may arise in the university setting.
Dr. Jones is a professor in the Biology Department at Expensive Private College (EPC). His research focuses on DNA transcription, but he has a personal interest in computers and computer programming. As the instructor for the department's Molecular Biology course, he develops a computer program that generates a video demonstration of transcription (DNA Whiz) and uses it to teach the class. DNA Whiz is a hit both with the students and other faculty. Realizing the program has broad appeal, and that he has a talent for programming, Jones sets up his own business, BioProgram. He rents a post office box and markets the program commercially to faculty at other universities via internet and print advertising, as well as by word of mouth. The program sells for $50, and the business earns profits of $15 for each copy sold. As the owner of the business, Jones pockets this money, but he shares the program with EPC faculty free of charge.
In addition to the video, Jones begins working on other programs that compare and analyze DNA sequences. Like DNA Whiz, these programs are free to faculty at EPC, but marketed to researchers at other universities. BioProgram becomes fairly profitable, but it has begun to consume all of Jones's time. He negotiates an agreement with the college administration for a year off from his teaching responsibilities to give him time to develop his business, in exchange for paying for a replacement instructor for his courses. During this year, he comes into his lab every day and develops and debugs software on his lab computer.
Mark, Jones's senior graduate student, has begun to feel that Jones is not providing him guidance. Although Mark is paid by the Biology Department on a departmental stipend, he often ends up answering the phone and troubleshooting programs for Jones's business in addition to his thesis work. He is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the demands on his time, but doesn't feel he can appear unwilling to help. He has not had a committee meeting to discuss his doctoral research in over a year, and Jones shows no signs of calling one any time soon. Mark is starting his sixth year, usually the final year in his program, and is quite frustrated -- he feels that he should be finishing his thesis, not helping to run BioProgram. He receives no pay for this work, and he has no financial investment in the company. He has thought of talking to Dr. Smith, another member of his committee, about the situation, but is afraid Jones will see this move as undermining his authority.
- Clearly, Mark is in an awkward situation. He must set his priorities for the next year. What should they be? Should he just continue to work in the lab? Should he talk to Smith? Could he talk to anyone else? What other courses of action might he take?
- Should Jones have been allowed to retain a full-time faculty appointment while running a business on the side? What kind of institutional policies should cover this situation? Jones has many responsibilities as a professor, which he must prioritize. What are these responsibilities, and where should his priorities be? How does his buying time off affect those responsibilities, especially in the case of Mark? How do those priorities change after BioProgram becomes so successful and demanding?
- Since the programs were developed on Expensive Private College computers using college time (which is why EPC professors get the program free), should BioProgram be collecting profits at all, or collecting profits only from other universities? Does it matter to your answer that EPC faculty get the programs free? That Jones has contributed the expertise? Jones is acting as if he owns the program. Does he? What if public funds support the work leading to the program, but Jones provided all the production capital and maintained an office away from campus?
- If the college allows Jones to run the business, should the department allow him to take on graduate students? What about students like Mark, who were already in the lab when Jones began his business? Would your answer change if the business did not interfere with Jones's duties? What criteria should determine whether it interferes with his duties? What are the responsibilities of a faculty member on sabbatical or leave to his or her graduate students?
Mark decides to talk to Smith, who was unaware of the magnitude of the problem. Smith suggests to Jones that Mark should have a committee meeting, and a meeting is scheduled. At the meeting, the other members of Mark's committee express concern about Mark's progress on his thesis; they feel he is not likely to finish his degree in the next year. Mark is quite upset. He feels that he has been doing exactly what Jones asked of him, assuming that his work would lead eventually to a thesis. Jones points out to the committee that he never asked Mark to answer the phone or troubleshoot the programs -- Mark did those things of his own choice and so drew time away from his thesis work. Jones defends Mark's right to departmental funding, especially at this time. Because Jones's recent grant application was denied, he feels it is especially important that the department continue to support Mark, as Jones can't pay him. In addition, Mark has spent five years in Jones's lab. To change projects now instead of finishing his current one would be absurd.
- Who is supposed to monitor the people managing Mark's work? the department chair? the dean? other members of the committee? What are Smith's (and the other committee members') responsibilities in this situation? As a member of Mark's committee, should Smith have been aware of the situation, or should he have waited for Mark to come to him? Whose responsibility is it to call committee meetings? What departmental policies toward committee meetings might prevent such a situation?
- Should the department continue to support Mark? Should he stay in Jones's lab and if so, should there be conditions upon his staying? Would you accept Jones's explanation for Mark's involvement with the business? How much oversight should the department be exercising in this case? Does the department have an ethical obligation to Mark? to Jones? Did anything go wrong here? It may seem that there is an administrative problem here. Has someone been negligent? If you were chair, how would you sort out this situation?
Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 1, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1997.
I will comment on aspects of this case sequentially, in the order in which they are presented. Some of my comments will be about the ethical issues themselves; some will be about whether the case is plausible, clear, etc.
I begin with paragraph one. Although it is typically allowable for professors to engage in some work beyond their regular employment at a university, restrictions are usually imposed (perhaps a percentage of one's workweek). That in itself suggests that taking on additional work raises a yellow flag. It appears that Jones has not been monitoring himself well in this regard -- nor, apparently, has anyone else. This situation is an open invitation for trouble, particularly of the conflict of interest variety, as the case later bears out.
The case states that Jones gets a sabbatical to develop his business. That seems unlikely, unless the university has determined that it has some particular stake in this business. It would be good to spell out the understanding and why the university finds this arrangement agreeable. This detail might result in a somewhat different description of Jones's work on his business. If, however, Jones has been granted a sabbatical to work on something else but finds himself consumed with the establishment of his business, we have a problem of a different sort. Jones committed to doing one thing but ended up doing quite another. Another way to change the case would be to have Jones taking a leave of absence (without pay) from the university to set up his business.
Whichever way the case goes, I should think that some understanding would have been established in relation to Jones's advisees. The case seems to leave this issue completely unresolved, so it is difficult to determine just what obligations Jones has. (E.g., when I was beginning to work on my dissertation, the person I wanted as supervisor was about to take a sabbatical leave. He recommended that I select a different supervisor, while volunteering to look at anything I might send him during his absence. I regarded this offer as an act of generosity on his part rather than an obligation. However, if Jones has already assumed the role of dissertation supervisor, he has an obligation, which requires him, at the very least, to help Jim get appropriate supervisory help.)
It isn't entirely clear how Jim got himself tied into Jones's outside work. Has the department sanctioned this arrangement? Why? With what understanding? I think we need more background on Jim's circumstances. Perhaps both the department and Jones are misusing Jim.
Is there something special about Jim being in his seventh year? If I read the case correctly, he had already put in five years of graduate work before Jones took his sabbatical. Isn't that an unusually long time to spend in a graduate program without having gotten further along on one's dissertation? Is there a suggestion here that Jim may not have been applying himself as well as he should (in which case Jones may have some doubts about how serious Jim is about completing his thesis soon)? Or is it a typical timeline for science Ph.D.s? I think the case will be strongest if there is no suggestion that Jim has been setting an unusually slow pace.
The answers to the questions in paragraph three really depend on how we are to understand the first two paragraphs. However, assuming that at this point Jim's circumstances are clarified and Jones is shown to be negligent in providing Jim with the supervision he needs, Jim certainly is justified in seeking help from someone else in the department. Maybe Jones would regard Jim's talking with Smith as an attack on his (Jones's) authority. But that would not be a reasonable conclusion for him to draw (assuming he even knew about the conversation). I take it that Jim would first simply express to Smith his concerns about not being able to progress with his thesis, both because of Jones's demands on his time and Jones's inaccessibility. Whether Smith is the person Jim should talk to depends on whether Jim feels comfortable discussing such a delicate matter with him. Maybe Jim should talk with someone else first. If there is no one Jim feels he can talk to, that would be most unfortunate and might signal that something is wrong with the department itself. In any case, Jim needs to talk with someone, and he should summon up the courage to do it. If the entire department is a mess, what does he have to lose? If Jones is the only problem, there should be a solution (unless Jim is not a good candidate).
I think the questions in Part 2 are quite good, especially if some of the questions I have asked about Part 1 are cleared up. I wonder, however, how readers will understand the statement that Jones's recent grant application was denied. Just how is that supposed to bear on Jim's circumstances? If the grant had been awarded, would Jim have been supported by it (or would Jones have selected someone else)? I think it would be helpful to say a bit more about this point.
A lot is packed into this case, and the issues raised are important. My main concern is that readers need enough information to focus clearly on what is going on as they consider the ethical issues.
Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.
The most salient issue raised by this case is the issue of who should profit from Jones's ideas -- whether the institution's investment in Jones is enough to justify receiving some (or all) of the profit from his business. A second -- not entirely separate issue -- is the appropriate use of university facilities (computers and phone lines, not consumable items) and time (leave) and the fact that the initial investment in Jones was by the college. As this case study was written, Jones is employed by a private college, but the issues would be even more complex if he worked for a state university. One might want to explore these issues when discussing whether it matters that public funds (a grant) supported Jones while he developed the program.
Jones's responsibilities to his institution are one issue, but he also has responsibilities to his students, which readers may or may not see as a separate issue. What Jones does on his own time is his business. But being a professor is not a 9 to 5 job with clear barriers between on and off time. Jones has a variety of responsibilities as a professor; readers' perceptions of and ranking of those responsibilities will greatly affect their answers to the questions posed in Part 1. Part of the problem is that Jones's priorities have changed mid-stream in Mark's graduate career, and the question arises as to whether or not these conflicts are being approached ethically. Jones's conflicts could become more entangled if the situation is allowed to progress without intervention; if BioProgram goes public, Jones also will have responsibilities to investors.
Mark also confronts some ethical issues. Does his responsibility for his own career conflict with his loyalty to Jones? He needs to remain in Jones's good graces for his future career success, yet he has to bring Jones's behavior up for review in order to graduate in a timely fashion; he is in a bit of a no-win situation. Mark's reluctance to disappoint Jones probably enters into his decisions as well, as he seems to get along well with Jones on a personal level.
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The issues raised here are mostly issues of responsibility -- the responsibilities of members of the department to students on whose committees they sit, the responsibilities to the department for the students and for allocation of resources (Mark's stipend). Underlying these issues is the issue of explicit versus implicit assumptions -- those made by Mark, by Jones and by the rest of the department. Conflicting perceptions of responsibility among the parties in this case led to this ethical dilemma.
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