When public mission = money

I have been emphasizing organizational conflict of interest.  Most universities have no policy on such things, and therefore technology transfer has been allowed to make a transition from a broadly faculty-led activity with a diversity of practices reflecting the range of inquiry and personal insights that characterize a university to an institutionally narrow endeavor focused first on championing patent licensing, then bringing it in-house, then requiring it for some inventions, then requiring it for all inventions, and then seeking to force all inventions to happen in-house by requiring ownership for everything, and calling anything done outside a personal conflict of interest.

In essence, technology transfer operations got fixated on the money, and then because there was no check on organizational conflict of interest, made the equation public mission = money.

That, of course, is the same thing as saying, “run more like a business”.  Put another way, it says, “to heck with the public mission, this is about institutional self interest.  Because the institution is “public” then anything it does by definition must be in the “public interest”.  Therefore making money is in the public interest.  On with it!

Once you believe that the primary goal of a university is to make money from not just its research inventions, but its research expertise as well, then a wide range of other arguments also appear rational.  There were rational arguments for many bad things in the world–slavery, dropping atomic bombs, furbys.

One can argue that the state provides the employment and resources, and therefore should own and control scholarship.  Do you see a totalitarian argument, or is it just “business as usual”?

One can argue that the state provides expertise and money, and therefore will be more efficient and a stronger partner than any mere faculty inventor.  Do you see how this ignores all the other partners that a faculty inventor might choose?  Is the state a stronger partner than all other possible partners for every possible faculty invention or area of expertise?  Really?

One can argue that institutional ownership and control brings consistency and order to what otherwise could be a chaotic scramble?  Reasonable, if one ignores the history of institutional control for any form of innovation that lies outside of its area of expertise.  Reasonable if one believes that ownership solves a hypothetical chaotic scramble, and without damage to other aspects of public service, and is the only solution (if it were a solution) possible to manage such a scramble, should it ever occur.

If the mission of a public university = money, then it has lost sight of its public mission.  Adequate funding and financial discipline are not the same thing as placing the generation of “new sources of revenue” above public mission.  A university has a responsibility to care for its commons–are personnel honoring the commitments they have made, or have asked the university to make?  Are informed consent agreements respected?  Are patient care and environmental safety paramount?  Is reporting to the public accurate and complete, whether on topics of research or administration?

Organizational conflict of interest means that the primary goals of the university are being rationalized in favor of immediate self-interest–like making money from inventions, or, er, everything, and therefore it is reasonable to claim everything, and to create a mandate that it is in the public interest to make money from everything, and then to come up with excuses why this is so exceedingly difficult that more money for technology transfer is needed, plus seed funds for all the squirrel tractors that have been disclosed, plus lecturing industry on how it is so uncooperative and the faculty on why their “culture” sucks.

The university is an ancient place, and faculty possess ancient rights.  The university came about as a solution to state and religious authority, as a kind of organizational bill of rights expressed in charters to create an independent commons, with institutional standing, but with diversity of inquiry, expression, and practice.   The modern corporation that is celebrated so well in various corners of educational reform is a recent thing, that is the solution to a very different thing:  how to transfer personal risk to an institutional body, and then distribute that risk to a broad population of shareholders, and to the government or other organizations, by means of practice, regulation, and contract.   That is, the modern corporation exists to mitigate risk while exploiting advantages to create “wealth” for its investors.

Applying this analogy to the university means taking an ancient and successful institution and overlaying it with an entirely different ethos–one that advocates marketing puffery, employer control of employees, and the transformation of products and services into a betting pool for speculators.   The university running more like a business means these things, not merely paying attention to waste and changing conditions.   Running more like a business means, gosh, we wish there was a way we could use the university as a new betting pool, and make money from that as well.   The technology transfer community–especially the new “let’s start a 100 paper companies and call that economic development” types–are willing to offer up the university to this effort, and for that purpose are pleased to introduce present assignments to all future scholarship, insight, ideas, discoveries, novels, sculptures, emails, writing assignments, and bits and pieces of software.

It doesn’t take much to see this is nonsense.  But it is dangerous nonsense.  It is a nasty kind of innovation, the kind that forgets the past, abandons purpose, and sets up to exploit an ancient and important thing for personal value–a value locked in one’s institutional status.  It is the work of folks who have lost sight of the long view in either direction, and wish to distort the university in the short term away from the services it might perform and hold these back in favor of licensing and research contracts.   One might even come to sense that in a conflicted administration, it will seem reasonable to suppress faculty public service, so that the administration can make its own, competing claims to public service = making money look that much better.

In running like a business, the faculty role is to make the business look good.  They are proles for the visionary management, even though in this case the visionary management has to envision pretty much everything, because the faculty proles study pretty much everything, and engage with pretty much everyone.  No matter, if one works it through from the perspective that management should control, and therefore it is only right that management own the work of the faculty, as well as its expertise, and deploy that work and expertise in paying transactions… that “benefit the public” by “making wealth” for “venture capital”.  Doesn’t teaching students to pitch venture capitalists as the only means of entrepreneurial success seem just a little bit self-serving and narrow in this regard?   As if there is no higher calling for an independent mind or the output of publicly supported research.

But we know that universities have a public mission, and these also, for all that, create wealth for the public and make money (if that’s how we have to say it) for the universities.  This mission–teaching exceptional courses, granting degrees for attainment, doing inquisitive research, staying skeptical, reporting results (even adverse ones), and helping the community in its many parts–these don’t have to make money solely or preferentially for wealthy investors, with a few lucky faculty founders greeted to the country club.   We can work through models of innovation and their impact on our sense of communities and societies.

If totalitarian control of faculty ideas and activities is the “innovation” presented by the technology transfer community as its gift to the state, as the intention of Bayh-Dole and therefore Congress’s gift to the states, then perhaps it’s an “innovation” that should be rejected.

The appropriate way for the state to reject the gift (that is no gift) is to pass an innovation bill of rights, that keeps the state out of the affairs of public university faculty, with regard to self-interest, unless asked to participate by the faculty.   There are plenty of ways to direct and mitigate commercial activities that disrupt the university, and there are even ways of permitting such disruption when there’s public service that matters even more.  Yes, even institutions can be altruistic and work against their own self-interest.  That’s what a steward, or trustee, or best friend might do.

Think carefully, then, before making the claim that in a public university, it’s only right that the state own the work of the faculty.   If the university exists for something other than–and prior to–and better than making money off investors and consumers, then public mission = money is not the starting point.   It is unmanaged organizational conflict of interest that allows the money-changers to take over scholarship.  It is a failure then, too, of leadership in the face of challenge to do the right thing.

Where to start?  Make IP assignment voluntary.   There will be administrative inconveniences.  But it restores the university administration to its proper role–governance, as a steward or trustee, not management, as a self-interested owner.

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