The traditions of academic freedom and openness in the university are time-honored, and it is not unreasonable to question whether today's commercial activities can impair these traditions

Are market forces shaping the university only for the good?

Seymour Lieberman

The university is changing--and why not? There is no a priori reason that it should be as it was in 1280 or even in 1890. One much honored Columbia professor once declared that the university has but one mission: Banish ignorance. This involves two elements: educating the uneducated and generating new knowledge. This scholar believed that these two goals, in and of themselves, were extremely difficult to achieve and that it was unnecessary or unwise for the institution to take on other goals.

Nevertheless, it became clear, even back 150 years ago, that much of the new information generated by university faculties served society by having practical and, therefore, commercial value. Recent years have made it evident that there are enterprises outside the university that are willing and maybe even anxious to pay for this university-generated knowledge. In contrast to previous practices, universities were encouraged to profit from the transfer of the intellectual property created by the efforts of its faculty by the enactment in 1980 of the Bayh-Dole Act. Thus it was recognized that there is much social good that comes from the transfer of inventions made in the university. Accordingly, our university benefited. Columbia Innovation Enterprise (CIE)-- which is dedicated to the transfer of the faculty's inventions to commercial companies--last year earned $65 million from such activities. Traditionally, the university sold its intellectual property to students by tuition. Now it also sells its property to commercial companies by research grants, license fees, and royalties.

Thus the university has changed because it is now unabashedly merged with the industrial sector of our society. Not too long ago, it was considered unseemly for the Columbia Health Sciences faculty to be engaged in patent acquisition. Now the faculty is encouraged to seek patent protection for their discoveries, since patents protect the financial investments that are needed for commercial development.

It follows that market forces have been heartily welcomed into what was once perceived to be the untainted culture of the university. No one can question that this new development benefits society, and benefiting society is the reason that the university exists. But the university is a unique institution; no other organization in our society can replace it. Consequently it may be reasonable to ask: Are all the changes induced by the entry of the university into the commercial arena beneficial to the university? Is the entry of market forces into the university's environment an unqualified boon? Does society benefit more from the efficient transfer of the university's intellectual property to the industrial sector than it does from the preservation of the traditional characteristics that make the university unique? Are there no risks to the academic culture engendered by the chase for financial return?

A superficial examination of the attitudes of the faculty and the procedures used by those who facilitate the transfer of technology seems to reveal that no great harm to traditional academic values has yet occurred. But reflection may disclose that possible pitfalls do exist. Among them are:

  • The inevitable danger that faculty will tilt their activities away from those that merely advance science to those having mainly commercial value. There are few people who are qualified to determine whether a professor, expert in his or her field, is tilting research deliberately and excessively toward commercialization. Should the university establish prying oversight committees that monitor the activities of the faculty to ensure compliance with academic values? Even if oversight committees were befitting the supposedly open society that is characteristic of an institution of higher learning, how could faculty members--busy with their own work and having no desire to be confrontational--be prevailed upon to serve on such committees? It is noteworthy that were Columbia to authorize such monitors, it would not be the first university to do so.

  • The improper use of students to advance the interests of the commercial supporters of the professor's research.

  • The use of university resources to do work that is of interest and profit to commercial companies. This activity may be difficult to control since in many schools it is now quite acceptable to do just that.

  • An unintentional bias in the recruitment and promotion of professors who have developed profitable inventions over those who work in esoteric academic areas.

  • The fostering of an atmosphere of secrecy. Secrecy is neither foreign nor inappropriate to the scientific enterprise, but the introduction of commercial concerns into the university will inevitably foster the shutting of doors and mouths. As in most other arenas, competition in the scientific enterprise has been an ever- present element. Up to a point, secrecy is appropriate in order to protect one's intellectual advantage. But secrecy ends with publication. No scientific investigation is complete until its findings are accessible to everyone. This issue is so much a part of the academic tradition that the university does not tolerate any constraint from any source that would prevent publication. On the other hand, commercial interests may have different values. Commercial advantages often depend upon secrecy. The inevitable conflict between commercial values and academic values thus presents a new dilemma for the university community.

  • The institutionalized encouragement of faculty who wish to set up their own companies to commercialize their inventions or merely their conceptions. By this practice, members of the faculty are assisted in an activity that tends to sidetrack their focus on serving the mission of the university to the uncontrolled, time-consuming labor of creating a profit-making enterprise. Sometimes, the motivation for setting up such a company is the acquisition of financial support for the professor's research--support that is not forthcoming from customary sources. Oftentimes, a start-up company may be used as a device to obtain funds and facilities, unavailable at the university, to commercialize an undeveloped idea. Creating one's own company provides a mechanism for greatly amplifying the monetary return to the inventor if the enterprise is profitable. At little or no cost to the hopeful entrepreneur and at little benefit to the university, members of the staff often provide the know-how required to construct a start-up company. It is a fact that the bulk of the university's income from technology transfer comes from agreements with well-established companies, rather than from alliances with small start-up enterprises.
Market forces add to those other centrifugal forces that tend to disassociate the university. It is well recognized that some members of the faculty have conflicts about their allegiance: Should they direct their loyalty to the funding agencies (such as NIH, NSF, the Howard Hughes Institute, or the Ford Foundation) that support their research programs (and who open the door to fame and fortune) or should they dedicate their allegiance to their university? In so far as market forces reinforce this offense on the cohesion of the university, are they an unqualified good?

This list is certainly incomplete, but it is not difficult to imagine how the introduction into the academic society of money associated with commercial matters will increase, more than ever, the temptations for improper behavior.

At present, there may be no tangible evidence that any of these potential problems have changed the academic culture. But the changes in the university environment may be subtle and difficult to discern. The traditions of academic freedom and openness in the university are time-honored, and it is not unreasonable to question whether today's commercial activities can impair these traditions. These new developments are driven by market forces, which in previous times were much less influential in affecting attitudes and behavior. To ensure that these forces change the university only for the good, the university community must vigilantly monitor all the consequences.


SEYMOUR LIEBERMAN, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of biochemistry and former chairman of Columbia's Committee on Science and Technology Policy.