Professor vs. NDA

Once I signed an non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Someone in my community was looking for a student to work on a mobile app and wanted to describe the project to me. To be friendly, I signed. Afterward, I felt inauthentic. I never wish to sign another. My reasons are several:

  1. NDAs with faculty are one-way. I’m trading my freedom from litigation for the right to connect you to students. That’s not much of a trade. NDAs may be appropriate where there’s an actual two-party exchange. The potential employee wants a job from you; you want him to keep his mouth shut. That’s fair. You want students from me; you want me to keep my mouth shut. That’s not fair. Why should I pay a cost to help you? Can you pay for my recommendation services with gifts? Not legally.
  2. We’re orthogonal partners. I am a teacher. My product is the next generation of computer scientists. Not technology. I’m selling you parts—albeit human ones. And I’m not selling them; I’m telling you where you can find them. We are not competitors. At a larger institution, NDAs may have a place. I, however, do not have time to take your idea to market before you do. I am too busy grading.
  3. You’re really after trust. Trust doesn’t start with a defensive action like an NDA. Controlling practices like these agreements at best produce stiff compliance, which falls short of the relationship you want with me. You want my best students. For me to send them your way, I need to think you’re the best place for them. If every time I think of you I remember that you could sue me, I really would rather not think of you.

C.S. Lewis talks of a way that two parties may resolve differences in The Screwtape Letters:

The human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples.

The more holy obliges the less holy. The strong obliges the weak. In the case of NDAs, I most definitely do not feel above them. Rather, they violate my feelings about relationships, autonomy, and fairness. I’m definitely the one with scruples. But if you have an NDA you want me to sign, you probably have scruples too.


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