Elliott C. Kulakowski, PhD
President, Research Administration and Management Strategy Group (RAM)
Universities are increasing efforts to identify the intellectual property of their faculty and to protect it through their technology commercialization offices (TCO). However, by and large, tenure and promotion systems have not kept pace with the universities' push to commercialize research results.
Historically, tenure and promotion systems focused on the scholarly achievements of their faculty. This meant that faculty must achieve levels of success in teaching, research or creativity and service. While teaching and service were important, they may be secondary in importance to the research endeavors for science and engineering faculty. Also of great consequence was the source of research funding. The first tier was research supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. Subordinate to these was research supported by non-profit organizations such as the American Heart Association. Ranking lowest was research conducted with commercial support from industry.
Achievements in research were, and in many cases still are, measured in terms of the quality and number of publications by faculty members. This has been the basis of the tenure and promotion system which led geneticist Dr. Kimball Chase Atwood III to coin the adage "publish or perish" nearly 60 years ago.
The passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 gave universities the impetus to protect and commercialize the intellectual property of their faculty. After a few major technological successes at leading universities, other research universities launched or expanded their own TCOs. The commercialization of academic intellectual property led to enhancement of the reputation of the university, increases in corporate funding for research, the influx of revenues from licensing royalties and the ability to attract entrepreneurial faculty. State legislators also look to their state universities to be economic engines through the creation of start-up companies based on the university's technology.
Commercialization of university patents has impacted positively our quality of life, has created jobs and has improved both local and national economies. Yet many universities seem to have a split personality in dealing with faculty inventions, patents and their commercialization. While research faculty may be recognized, encouraged and even financially rewarded for developing intellectual property, their efforts often are not recognized criteria for tenure and promotion.
Some research–centric universities are slowly adapting a more modern mantra of "publish, patent or perish" that reflects a change to outdated tenure and promotion policies. In 2007, Texas A&M became the first public institution to recognize invention disclosures and commercialization of intellectual property for tenure.
Guy Diedrich, Texas A&M's Vice Chancellor, said, "There has been a cultural belief that academic research and commercialization are at odds with each other. In fact, we found they are complementary. You have to consider research as a process, not an event that begins and ends with an innovation and publication of that new idea."
Other policies imply, but do not spell out commercialization as a criteria for tenure and promotion. Georgia Tech's policy states that patents count toward tenure "only inasmuch as it demonstrates the creativity and scholarship of the individual, not relative to the commercialization potential of the patent." This seems ambiguous, but Tech's Chief Commercialization Officer, Stephen Fleming, answered the question "Does commercialization activity count toward promotion at Georgia Tech?" with, "Absolutely! The mid-career Associate Professor looking for advancement to full Professor will need to demonstrate multiple accomplishments—and commercialization can be one of them." But then he adds the caveat, "It's not the focus."
At other institutions, such as Syracuse University, patents are part of the guidelines for tenure and the distinction is much more precise than Georgia Tech's policy. A&M, Syracuse and institutions like them are the originators of "tenure for patents." Unfortunately, other institutions seem to be slow to adapt these more progressive, much-needed policies, and only on a limited basis. For example, while the College of Engineering at the University of Utah has changed its tenure and promotion policy to now consider patents as part of its tenure process, the other colleges at the university have not adapted this approach.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned universities, the majority of tenure and promotion systems still do not recognize patents and commercialization in the tenure process. Yet there finally seems to be a trend toward rewarding the intellectual property achievements of research faculty with more than just a share of royalties, but also with tenure and promotions. This trend may grow as new products and processes are developed from university research that improve our lives and impact our communities.
Elliott Kulakowski currently serves as President of Research Administration and Management (RAM) Strategy Group, an international consulting firm with a mission to assist institutions (universities, technology based start-up companies, etc) with developing and implementing their research and technology management and operational strategies.