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Between Academia and Industry

Guest Column John W. Strohm

William Koffel ‘00 didn’t do one of his problem sets one week, and the reason made the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Koffel’s assignment for Professor Frans Kaashoek in 6.033 was similar to the work he was doing at a start-up company founded by Professor F. Thomas Leighton -- work protected under a non-disclosure agreement. Leighton said that the homework was industrial espionage, while Kaashoek said the problem presented was a common one. The real conflict of interest here is not about homework, it is about the dual role of professors: as instructors and as employers.

There are benefits to professors-as-employers. Such professors work with their student employees as intellectual equals, and the job can be an excellent learning experience for the student. But before professors can employ students, they have to hire students. And since most start-up companies don’t have HR departments, a professor who wishes to hire students must also be the company recruiter. A problem arises for professors: As a recruiter, a professor wants only the best and brightest, while as a teacher he has a duty to be fair to all students. How does a recruiter organize a class, and how does it differ from how a teacher organizes the same class?

The recruiter wants to make the class hard and difficult to follow, so that only the smartest and most motivated students will do well. The recruiter sees which students understand the material, and then hires them. Those who are not top students can be ignored, because they are of little use to the recruiter. These students, who comprise nearly the whole class, grow disenchanted and frustrated. To a recruiter, a class is an evaluation, not a way to learn.

Do recruiters really focus only on the cream of the crop? Of course they do -- look at the NBA draft. Did scouts pay more attention to the top picks or to the bottom of the barrel? Some might say that this is example is irrelevant, because scouts are just concerned with evaluating talent, whereas professors should be teaching. But that is exactly the problem: professors who are looking to start companies act like scouts when they should be teaching instead.

A teacher focuses on teaching. He wants the top performers to do well, but he is more concerned with teaching the entire class. The class can cover just as much material as a recruiter’s class, but teachers present material in a different way. The recruiter overwhelms students with convoluted concepts to test their comprehension, while the teacher clearly explains the vital material. Under the teacher, all motivated students have a chance to do well. You get the same amount of water to drink whether you drink from a garden hose or a fire hose, but one is a lot more pleasant.

Sadly, professors who start companies cannot leave recruiting mode once they enter it. To survive, start-ups must expand, requiring more employees, and the student body is the best place to find them. Professors-as-recruiters cannot switch back to teacher mode because each class they teach is a chance to find new talent, and new talent can mean corporate success. The financial incentives for being a good recruiter are high, while the financial incentives for being a good teacher are relatively modest.

If the quality of teaching is suffering, why does MIT allow professors to start up their own companies? The answer is money. MIT doesn’t just allow its professors to start companies, it encourages them to do so, and even funds promising start-ups. The Technology Licensing Office collects royalties from the professors’ start-ups, thus giving MIT an incentive to ensure that the company succeeds. Looking at MIT as a corporation, this arrangement makes sense. It looks like MIT, Inc. is here to stay.

Professor John Guttag, newly minted head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, hinted at a possible solution to this problem. He said in the Journal, “We’re making up policy as we go along.” This non-policy does a disservice to all involved by propagating confusion and misunderstanding. Guttag should create a proactive policy that clearly spells out the duties of professors who wish to start companies and hire students. Such a policy could help avoid the embarrassment of being the subject of a front-page expose, help start-up companies prosper, and, most importantly, improve the quality of undergraduate education.

John Strohm is a senior majoring in Course VI.