Boundaries and presence

This morning, Inside Higher Ed reported on the resignation of Terrell Strayhorn from his faculty position at Ohio State University, after he was dismissed from a center director position. Strayhorn is well-known in higher-ed research,1 and his administrative dismissal and then faculty resignation is a startling end to what had been a rocketlike career trajectory.

Briefly, the allegations against Strayhorn are related largely to his spending a huge amount of time away from campus and the center he directed so that he could speak and be a consultant for his own side income. I don’t know the extent to which the story is accurate — Inside Higher Ed is pretty good, which means that most of its stories are at least 70% accurate — but if the reported details are close to what happened, there is a lesson here for faculty: respect boundaries, and be present at your job. Most universities allow and often encourage outside business activities/consulting, as long as the outside activities do not interfere with the main gig and you do not use university resources to run your side gig.

These principles often have interesting paperwork attached to them. Some universities require advance approval for most outside activities, most require annual reporting of the hours used, many have informal or formal limits on the time you can engage in side gigs, and if your side gig is something like a business spun out from research that’s related to grants, there is often complex reporting on potential financial conflicts of interest when you apply for grants. The point of this paperwork is not only to prevent conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest but also to protect both faculty and universities from allegations that faculty are using their faculty positions in a way to enrich themselves rather than satisfy their main responsibilities, or using the institution’s resources (especially taxpayer funds) on non-university business.

According to Ohio State University, Terrell Strayhorn largely and repeatedly ignored both these boundaries and the procedures Ohio State set up to help faculty avoid crossing them. My impression from reading this morning’s article is that there were other allegations that were unproven (especially of an affair with a center staff member who was a former Strayhorn student), and that complaints had piled up repeatedly until university administrators could not ignore the problems. Again: this is based on my reading a single article, not of any direct knowledge of the facts.

In my years as a faculty union activist and then department chair in Florida, I knew about occasional problems with side gigs. In a few cases, it was a matter of side gigs that interfered with teaching or other responsibilities. In other cases, the problem was the use of university resources to conduct the side gig. In most cases, it’s hard to document the problem unless you catch a wayward colleague in the act. In the case of someone as famous as Strayhorn, it’s hard to miss that someone is speaking around the country often enough that for long stretches, they’re away from their job more than present. And then easy enough to document that they’re being paid for the gigs.

For most faculty, it should be easy to follow whatever rules the college or university has: declare what you’re expected to declare in terms of outside activities, ask in advance if your university requires permission, and in no way act as if the university owes you resources to conduct your side gig. In this last regard I disagree with my fellow historian Marybeth Gasman, quoted in the article as making a voluntary choice to set clear boundaries between her center’s operations and outside consulting: “Not necessarily because she has to, but to keep things neat, Gasman said she does not run her individual talks through her center and arranges travel and files related paperwork herself” (emphasis added). She makes the right decision — on that I agree with her. But she does have to. It’s okay for an administrator to get help with logistics so that personal appointments do not conflict with business meetings, but I would not ask staff to facilitate my side gig by making airline and other travel reservations for speaking engagements and consultation gigs, in the way that Strayhorn allegedly did, repeatedly and egregiously.2


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  1. i.e., the research community that focuses on higher education []
  2. A useful term here is incidental use of university resources–something that draws minimally on time and money in a way that does not conflict with the core jobs of people and the main uses of resources. On occasion faculty and staff print off single pages of things like airline boarding passes; the use of printers for other things is minimally affected. That’s an incidental use of university resources, and an administrator wanting to punish faculty for that would be out of line. On the other hand, if you hack a server so that 80% of storage and/or CPU time is devoted to your side gig in AI, that’s well beyond incidental use. []