Talking Business With Academics

CJ, my partner in the effort to free wrongly convicted felons, and I had a meeting today with a California college that has offered to help us by providing student interns from its Law and Criminal Justice departments.

There were about eight people at the video conference. Although I had been told that the meeting would be about the prospect of doing a documentary on the project, I quickly discovered that nobody quite knew what we were going to talk about. I felt the need to get things moving, and respectfully suggested that we define our objective and set a time (30 minutes) for ending the meeting. This had an immediately positive effect.

Aside from unofficially leading the agenda, I realized that I had to do something else: I had to sell everyone on the value of contributing their time and effort to this cause. So I did my elevator pitch. I explained that if we found the right candidate, someone that had been falsely convicted for a capital offense, it would provide the school with a community-related and altruistic mission that it could publicize. And it would provide its students with lots of interesting and challenging work.

Everyone expressed excitement at the vision. But then came the hard part.

In a business environment, once the vision is adopted, decisions about who does what are relatively easy. Each person is usually happy to play his part because the goal is exciting and because the payoff is in profits and bonuses. (Which is something everyone can understand.)

But in an academic environment, taking on responsibility for a project is a more complicated affair. One big difference is that academia doesn’t view revenue growth and profit as clear and comprehensible goals. What is good for the president (good will and endowments) isn’t necessarily good for the head of the Law Department (who may be thinking about his standing in the legal community) or the associate professor in Criminology (who may be thinking about what he needs to get tenure).

So I did my best to address these interests indirectly. (It’s not a good idea to be blunt when talking about ulterior motives.) And by the end of the half-hour, I felt like we were all moving in the same direction.

The next step is for CJ to turn over files on our top candidates to the law professors and have them opine on which cases have the best chance of success.

I realize that making this work is going to take much more than simply my willingness to pay for everything. I’m going to have to make it work for everyone involved. And that, of course, must include the exoneration of one wrongly convicted person.