The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for cooperation with oneself....  ...Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship and Other Essays (June 9, 1976).
Commentary of the Day - Feb. 3, 2000: Ethical Challenges:
A recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Goldie Blumenstyk (Chronicle, February 4, 2000 edition) outlines the extent to which new technology companies - particularly those that operate in the higher education market - have sought out academics to serve on their advisory boards and even on their company boards of directors.  Among those well-known academics she identified as having corporate board connections are:
Charles B. Reed, Chancellor of the California State University System, who was appointed by to its board of directors. runs a college admissions web site.  Reed resigned from this position in December citing a possible conflict of interest.

Robert H. Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education, and Marvin Wachman, Chancellor of Temple University, who are on the board of directors of Collegis - a company that manages campus computing systems.

Charles E. Young, Chancellor Emeritus of U.C.L.A., who was recently appointed to the board of directors of Student Advantage, which is a Internet company that markets to students.

Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, who was recently appointed to the board of directors of Blackboard, Inc. - a company that provides distance education software.

In addition, many academics serve on advisory boards to companies involved in providing high technology goods and services to higher education.  For example, lists the following academics on its advisory board:
David Finney, Dean and Special Assistant to the President, New York University.
Gerald Heeger, President, University of Maryland University College.
Richard Jarvis, President, United States Open University.
John Kobara, President and CEO of, which is associated with U.C.L.A.
Gary W. Matkin, Associate Dean University Extension, University of California.
Frank Mayadas, Program Officer, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Katherine Mayberry, Associate Provost for Academic Programs, Rochester Institute of Technology.
Robert W. Mendenhall, President, Western Governors University.
Gary Miller, Associate VP for Distance Education and Executive Director World Campus, Pennsylvania State University.
Burks Oakley II, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, University of Illinois Online.
Paula E. Peinovich, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Regents College.
Nishikant Sonwalkar, Director Hypermedia Teaching Facility, Center for Advanced Educational Services, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Jack Wilson, Distinguished Faculty Member, Rensselear Polytechnic Institute.

While some of the people who serve on the various boards do so without compensation, many receive some kind of compensation or reimbursement for the service.  Most of the academics involved with these private businesses claim that they are motivated by a desire to understand the dynamics of these new enterprises, and how they may affect higher education in the future.  These may sound like noble goals; however, the potential for conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest ought to be obvious.  To Chancellor Reed's credit, he was smart enough to see the potential for conflict so he resigned (although one might wonder why he didn't recognize the potential for a conflict before accepting the appointment).

Clearly, businesses that serve the higher education market need to have input from knowledgeable leaders from academia.  Likewise, academia needs to be aware of developments in private industry that could affect their operations.  The rapid pace of technological development makes this imperative.  However, it is also important that the stakeholders in academia (faculty, staff, and students) know that purchasing decisions are not going to be affected by corporate ties.

Unfortunately, it is not possible for someone to serve two masters well.  If an academic official has influence over the purchasing process for his or her institution, that official should not serve on any corporate board of directors or advisory board for any company that does business with his or her institution.

There are ways that companies can get the input they need from academia, and vice versa without creating these conflicts or appearances of conflict.  For example, many corporate boards include retired academic officials, for whom the conflict issue is much diminished.  Likewise, active academic officials can serve on industry-wide advisory groups and panels.  By not having direct ties with any particular company, the chances for a conflict again are much reduced.


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©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.