How Software Engineering Teaching and the Legal Department Collide

Any non-trivial university has a legal department, often several (at least one for matters of teaching and one for matters of fundraising). The legal department concerned with teaching has to protect the university from lawsuits by students. By extension, this department protects students from professors who ask too much of them. Often, there may be good reasons for this. Sometimes it gets in the way of effective teaching.

The case bothering me most is the embedding of students in our research work. Master students often contribute to our research projects by writing code. Because such code is their property, by way of integrating it with our own code base, students obtain an exclusion right: They can request that we stop using their code and thereby our own intertwined code. We used to ask students in advance of their Master thesis whether we have their permission to use their work in our projects and this never was a problem, until now. Apparently based on recent proceedings, our legal department has instructed all professors not to ask students beforehand whether we can use their work, but only after the Master project finished and the grade has been announced. Anything else opens up the university to a lawsuit by a student claiming blackmail.

Now, one may argue that this is just fine: Simply ask the student after the project finished. Sadly, in engineering, this doesn’t work. My Ph.D. students often work side-by-side with their Master’s students, integrating their code many times a week into the overall project’s code base. This opens us up to the problem that a student may say no to us using their work so that we have to remove it from our code base before we can continue. As a consequence, we’d rather delay the integration of the student’s work into our projects until we know that we can use it. Out the window goes pair programming and frequent integration that make our students learn so much. We’ll now simply have to accept a big blob delivery that probably will need a significant amount of rework before it becomes useful. Clearly, a no-win situation.

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