Technemort, the name never to be spoken

University of Washington president Michael Young gave a ten-minute talk in February 2012 at the opening of a business incubator on the UW campus. The talk is fascinating as a rationalization for the $100M effort to flip faculty and student startups to investors for UW profit. I am providing annotations to draw out the implications of the talk, in a series of posts. President Young’s talk is in purple and my comments follow in brown, in square brackets.

Here is a third installment, a double-shot of statement and comment:

Uh, in fact, somebody once described the university as a place that accumulates knowledge because students come in at eighteen years old, they know everything, and we not knowing everything, and what they’ve left behind is what accumulates [laughter] here at the university.

[Comment:  Mr. Young’s figure of thought takes the form of a joke at the expense of the university’s faculty and research staff. Somehow students bring in new knowledge, and faculty and staff are know-nothings. So on this celebratory day, only a minute into his talk, Mr. Young takes a swipe at the faculty. If students have the bright ideas before they arrive at the university, why should they involve the university at all in their business activities? Why not go straight after their ideas, as Peter Thiel has begged them to do?

Mr. Young’s figure works only if faculty, but for the incubator and other administration-provided technology management services, would hoard their knowledge. But that interpretation makes the figure come off as arrogant, especially in light of the efforts by the university administration to claim ownership of nearly all faculty, staff, and student intellectual property.

The idea that faculty are know-nothings helped kindly by their bright students who have no need of training and are only there to receive a confirming credential suggests, however, that Mr. Young sees the real beneficiaries of the incubator to be students, who are provided a release from their disengaged and intellectually useless faculty advisors, which should bring delight to the investment community. Is Mr. Young talking truth to power? Or is he disparaging the faculty while attempting to re-write history? That’s the question that’s on the line.]

Um, and what managed to creep out of the university, often, uh, often against great odds, uh, really was powerful, uh, but over time universities have begun to understand that the process of doing good, not the process of making money, not even the process of creating jobs—all that is a by-product of a very simple principle, which is what we do in the laboratories, what we do in the research mission of this university is really designed to make the world a better place. But if it stays in the university, uh, it doesn’t accomplish its goal. Our capacity to expand that out and get it into the life of real people is what this is all about. Uh, it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of extra Porsches in the faculty parking lot, I don’t deny that for a moment, but that is never the motivation or the central animating force behind it.

[Comment: Let’s take it slowly here. First, what Mr. Young is getting at. Second, the language he uses to do it.

Mr. Young invites us to imagine a time when stuff crept out of universities against great odds. Then at some unnamed point in the past universities learned that there was a process of doing good, and if they followed this process, then there would be money and jobs. Doing good means making the world a better place. How? By publishing research results? By teaching? By consulting with folks in industry? These are all things faculty routinely do. But Mr. Young does not mention these activities. So what is the “it” that Mr. Young refers to? It can’t be “knowledge” because that’s what is is getting published, taught, and provided by faculty. It would appear to be “what” that has not “managed to creep out.”  If this “what does not manage to creep out” stays in the university, then the university (“it”) does not “accomplish its goal” of making the world a better place. That is, new knowledge does not make the world a better place; rather, “what does not creep out, but should” does. 

The challenge is getting at what this “what” is that faculty hoard and great odds conspire to keep in the university. The “what” can be “expanded out” and can be gotten “into the lives of real people” (not the fake people of the university, apparently, another swipe at the faculty, perhaps). The “what” can make people rich. But money is not the “central animating force” behind getting the “what” out. So what is “what”?

Given that Mr. Young’s talk is on the occasion of opening a business incubator on the UW campus, perhaps we can construct what for Mr. Young shall not be named, his Technemort, as it were. Mr. Young is talking around the idea of inventions, software, data–specifically stuff that the university administration asserts it must own. But “what” is more than that. “What” is also business ideas that the university wants a share of.

Faculty ideas must pass through administrative hands before they can have an effect in the world. That they must do so is not a sad consequence imposed on the university by outside forces. That faculty ideas must pass through administrative hands is a requirement imposed by administrators on facuty (and staff, and students). Mr. Young cannot bring himself to say this. These ideas cannot be used in the wider world immediately because the university claims to own them. Until an administrator approves, anyone using the idea outside of the university is infringing, being illegal, stealing from the administration what it seeks to profit from.

No wonder faculty ideas, in the presence of administrative claims to ownership, have to “creep out against great odds.” What Mr. Young is talking around–but not willing to say–is that the university’s own administrative policies have created the problem of the “Ivory Tower” of intellectual property. The great odds are created by university policy, by administrative complexity, by administrative incapacity. This is the Technemort–the death of capability–that stands against innovation. To work against his Technemort, Mr. Young proposes a business incubator, one not quite outside the university, in which the university can hold onto ideas and IP for still longer in the hope of finding investors who will make the university rich. 

The business incubator, then, is a proposed solution to an administration-caused problem. The great deal for the state of Washington is that, perhaps, administrators have figured out a way to make money for the university without having to backtrack on their claim to own faculty (and staff, and student) work. 

Now consider the language that Mr. Young uses. Mr. Young talks about abstractions used by administrators, not about the ways that faculty, staff, and students choose to make a difference in the world. 

For Mr. Young, the animating principle is that the research mission of the university is designed to make the world a better place. A by-product of this principle is a process of doing good. That is, Mr. Young is not talking about research, but a research mission; not doing good, but a process of doing good; not the outcome of personal commitment, but the operation of a principle–a principle that mandates a process to fulfill a mission. This is a hymn of praise to administration, an encomium of principles, processes, and happy by-products when administration controls opportunity. But it is more than that.

Mr. Young does not say, “Our faculty are engaged in the world, and our technology licensing personnel work to assist them at need.” He does not say, “Our faculty aim to do good in the world, and research is one expression of their efforts.” He does not say, “We have come to understand how difficult it is for any ideas–especially those developed in university laboratories disconnected from the big, wide world–to be verified or used by others, let alone form the basis for new products.” Instead, Mr. Young appeals to a principle–a statement beyond debate–that there is a process by which ideas can get out of the university, and that doing good is the by-product–not the objective, but the by-product–of the process

Consider this template for Mr. Young’s reasoning: “University administrators have arbitrarily decided [principle] that all faculty must follow policies that force their creative work to be owned by the university and managed by administrators [process], who by negotiating in complicated ways with companies and investors, will as a side-benefit do some good [by-product]. The overlay of Mr. Young’s abstractions fit well with these actual conditions at the University of Washington. The implication is that if the technology licensing administrators do not close deals, then the research enterprise of the university fails in its public mission, and good does not come about. Serious stuff. The Center for Commercialization is at the very heart of public good, and the Fluke Hall business incubator must be the left ventricle poised to squeeze student ideas and faculty inventions out into the body of the world.

Why then the reference to Porsches? Certainly, Mr. Young is not thinking of my photograph from Laguna Seca that has adorned the banner here at Research Enterprise all these years. No, the reference is to the Porsche Effect (as aptly described by Melba Kurman):

The thinking behind the Porsche effect goes like this: faculty  haven’t yet seen any of their colleagues strike it rich. If just one  university scientist gets rich from a patent, then their colleagues  would stampede the tech transfer office and staff would never struggle to attract faculty mindshare again. (246)

Faculty, seeing that other faculty are getting rich by participating in the university’s patent licensing program, will, motivated by envy and a desire for material wealth, choose to participate in the program as well. The motivation depicted is most clearly not one of striving to do good. It is a variation on the quip about missionaries to Hawaii–they came to do good and did well. Mr. Young takes it one step further: If you try to do well, then as a by-product you will do good. If university faculty were business people, Adam Smith’s mysterious invisible hand might even make it so. Or Ayn Rand’s more direct development of the idea.

The implication is that faculty should dedicate their inventions to university administrators, who will navigate complicated dealings with speculative investors. These investors will make the university rich, the university in its largesse will share a portion back with the faculty inventors (1/3 after expenses, typically), and faculty inventors will buy hot cars. And in an administration-approved show of ostentation, they will drive the hot cars to work, thereby inspiring material desires in other faculty, who then awaken to the realization that by submitting inventions to the Center for Commercialization, they are finally pursuing a higher form of self-interest, one in which, as a necessary by-product, the university administration will do good in the world. 

The Center for Commercialization’s own Strategic Plan from 2010 goes straight at it, setting out a four-year plan for C4C to improve UW by recruiting faculty, starting companies, making money, and promoting UW technology. C4C follows with this note (quoted exactly, sadly):

Ordinarily, we might not place emphasize revenue, but in the current fiscal environment, the university must focus on generating sufficient revenue to support its operations and initiatives. Without adequate funding, UW will not be the best anything. Commercialization is one of the few identified potential new sources of badly-needed funding.

C4C exists to make money from startups and licensing, but Mr. Young constructs a narrative in which seeking money results, happily but indirectly, in public good. Seeking money may not the animating force behind C4C’s efforts (though that is what is claimed in C4C’s own strategic plan); the animating principle is administrative dominance, which turns out to be Technemort itself.]


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