Academic Detachment and Consulting Work

Today’s Boston Globe reports a story involving a lawsuit filed by eSapience, “a media and research entity that shapes the debate on issues that intersect law, economics, and policy,” against one of its former clients. eSapience is claiming unpaid consulting fees for a project to rehabilitate the public image of Maurice Greenberg, an insurance executive pursued at one point by Eliot Spitzer for alleged improprieties connected with Greenberg’s work at AIG insurance.

The interesting twist is that eSapience appears to have employed prominent academics, including U. Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein, to write articles favorable to Greenberg. The Globe reports that “Their mission was ‘to change the public conversation about Maurice Greenberg ,’ according to a confidential plan summary. This was to be accomplished, in part, by organizing invitation-only events where ‘influencers’ would hear Greenberg weigh in on insurance issues and by penning papers, editorials, books, and other content aimed at putting the executive in a favorable light, the summary said.”

Assuming for the sake of argument that the Globe story is true, did these professors cross some line of academic impropriety? It’s certainly common for law professors to take on consulting projects or testify as expert witnesses knowing that they will advocate a certain position. However, if they took on certain “scholarly” projects knowing that their point of view was predetermined, that sounds a bit fishy. Granted, the opinions they ended up taking may have been the ones they’d have taken independently. However, it seems much more proper if academics fully disclose any financial interest they have in the positions they take.

p.s. Here are links to another Globe story and a PR Week story about the same matter.

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1 Response

  1. Frank says:

    This raises fascinating issues on the proper nature of disclosure in such settings–how intense and how frequent does it need to be to permit audiences to make an informed judgment?

    On the other hand, perhaps the ultimate expression of a market-driven ideology might be a willingness to sell one’s work to the highest bidder. In a world where “everything’s for sale,” why not opinions?

    More seriously, I think Ellen Goodman’s work on “stealth marketing” could provide some good ground rules here.