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Harvard weighs tighter rules on faculty's Internet ventures

By David Abel, Globe Correspondent, 4/24/2000

n Harvard's first universitywide effort to revise its conflict of interest policy since 1948, a high-level committee has released a set of Internet-minded guidelines that, if adopted, would subtly tighten rules regulating the faculty's outside teaching, research, and consulting.

While some professors view the proposed rules as necessary to define the boundaries broadened by cyberspace, others see them as a potential violation of their academic freedom.

Once unimaginable educational opportunities, such as professors distributing lectures over the Internet or setting up Web-based firms dispensing advice, are not covered under existing rules. The current policy allows professors to consult, teach, or research outside Harvard so long as the work doesn't consume more than 20 percent of their time, compromise the university, or conflict with their obligations to students, colleagues, or Harvard.

But time is not the overriding factor under the proposed new guidelines.

Under them, faculty members would probably be prohibited from teaching courses over the Internet for other institutions and doing certain other forms of freelance work, even if it is done on their own time - after hours, during vacations, or over the summer.

That's because the ease of dissemination makes it possible to teach vast numbers of students around the world, often without the instructors leaving campus and with only a modest time investment. That, according to a draft of the guidelines obtained by the Globe, opens up new forms of competition and potential conflict for Harvard.

The proposal follows the administration's decision in the fall to force Harvard law professor Arthur Miller to give up an online course he produced last summer for Concord University School of Law, an online degree-granter founded by Kaplan Educational Centers.

Miller said the proposed guidelines, issued by the provost's faculty advisory group, would only serve to further limit academic freedom.

''Before this proposal, I would say Harvard owned a part of my body; now they have my heart and soul,'' said Miller, a voluble professor once known for his TV show ''Miller's Court,'' which helped explain the law to nonlawyers. ''I think it's very graphic in demonstrating the expanded control Harvard is trying to exert over the faculty.''

While Law School dean Robert Clark put an end to Miller's fling with Concord, for which he taped 11 lectures last summer, the new rules wouldn't categorically bar professors from such ventures.

Instead, professors would have the opportunity to seek permission from the dean of their respective school and the corporation, Harvard's top administrative body. Yet, the parameters deans would have to use in arriving at such a decision make approval unlikely in most cases, the proposal's authors acknowledge in their report.

''It's not a flat prohibition,'' said Bob Mnookin, a law school professor who helped draft the recommendations. ''Whether or not someone is hemmed in depends on the reaction of their dean to what is being proposed, and we can't really know that yet. My own hunch is that deans are certainly sensitive to issues of academic freedom.''

Still, the new rules would differ in several ways from the current 52-year-old policy, a document amended last in 1997 when the administration allowed professors a slight increase in the amount of summertime money they could earn.

Without approval, it would bar professors from teaching, consulting, or doing research at or for another educational institution or for-profit organization at any time, not just during the academic year. Those words were chosen to cover virtual teaching over the Internet as well as work done during the summer.

The proposal specifically states that professors, associate professors, or assistant professors could not hold academic appointments at other institutions, except approved joint programs. Although this has been tacitly understood, the existing guidelines do not address the issue.

The recommendations also make it clear professors must be careful in using the university's name and insignia in their outside work. In such cases, the proposal explains, professors should limit identification with Harvard to listing their formal titles, and only when it's relevant.

Furthermore, they must ensure the organization doesn't misrepresent Harvard, suggesting sponsorship when no formal association exists.

By the end of this month, the committee expects to hear back on the proposed guidelines from Harvard deans. Members of the Harvard corporation are expected to take a final vote on the recommendations by the end of May.

Dennis Thompson, Harvard's assistant provost and chairman of the committee that wrote the proposal, insisted Miller's situation did not prompt the review of the current policy. Instead, he said, the administration has recognized over the past few years that new information technologies have made it necessary to revise the policy.

''I can say, though, it was often used as an example of what any adequate policy should be able to answer,'' Thompson said. ''What Arthur Miller's case shows is that deans have to interpret the extent to which a professor's relationship with another university qualifies as a course.''

Other professors, however, viewed Miller's venture as adding urgency to why new rules are now necessary. Sidney Verba, a professor of government also on the provost's committee, said that even if the rules are adopted, ambiguity would continue. Miller's situation created a precedent for such faculty ventures.

As for Miller preparing online lectures, Verba says prohibiting them was justified because Concord had advertised that its course starred a Harvard professor and because it fell under current rules barring activities competitive to Harvard.

''A lot of the ambiguity comes from the fuzzy relationship people have with the new medium,'' he said. ''I think a lot of this will be shaken out over time.''

While clarifying vagaries about online education is a good thing, according to law professor Charles Nesson, the university has to tread a fine line, being careful not to blunt new forms of expression as Harvard protects its name.

And for Nesson, who runs the law school's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and has been approached to teach online courses or sit on dot-com advisory boards, the issues are not merely hypothetical.

''The proposal does crimp freedom, but I respect it,'' he said. ''But if the administration confines faculty, and doesn't give them any meaningful outlet, then it's got really negative connotations. That remains to be seen.''

Miller, however, is already convinced that the new proposal would signal a negative turn for academic freedom. The professor, who became familiar to millions through TV appearances that included a stint as legal editor of ABC's ''Good Morning America,'' says the Internet is the next frontier for teaching law to the masses. And he doesn't want to be shut out of it.

''The thing that is so bothersome about this is that I've been here about 30 years and there has never been this kind of restriction on my behavior,'' Miller said. ''I've been loyal to Harvard, but there are skills I have that I like to share outside of Harvard. ''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.