Collaborating with the corporate sector can bring a university great benefits; it can also involve unacceptable compromises. An academic leader offers a few basic guiding principles

Corporate partnerships:
what's in it for the university?

Peter Likins

The phrase "technology transfer" was born in a military context, referring to the one-way transfer of technological applications developed in the military to commercial industry. A different process takes place when the source is a university rather than, say, the Air Force. What usually emanates from the university is not the technology but the underlying science -- new understanding, not product development -- and the flow of information between the partners is much more interactive than the term implies.

Most of the innovation that ultimately manifests itself in commercial applications comes from within industry, not from the university. To create products that work in the marketplace, one needs a deep understanding of market demands, and few of us in higher education have that experience or the related intuitive sense. Usually, professors and students develop an understanding of physical phenomena, communication strategies, or engineering methods, then collaborate with technical people outside the universities in the kind of dialogue that permits each party to understand what the other has to contribute. The key phenomenon -- something that is often missing, but something one can deliberately foster -- is personal cross- communication between the creative people on both sides, those with a well-developed sense of science or theory and those with a keen sense of market opportunities.

Regardless of the benefits each draws from contact with the other, the missions of for-profit corporations and universities remain different. A corporation's purpose is to maximize financial benefit while operating within societal constraints; the university primarily maximizes societal benefits within financial constraints. That distinction alters the motivations of the principal actors. Professors are rewarded, through promotions and reputation in the field, for maximizing the benefit to society and may not be mindful of industry's need to maximize financial benefit through patents and control of intellectual property. From the faculty's perspective, the ideal disposition of intellectual property is to place it into the public domain instantly. Conversely, the corporate sector is not motivated to make ideas accessible to others in the research community at all. Effective collaborations usually come about where there is both a professor who accepts the legitimacy of the profit motive and someone in industry who accepts the need to communicate research results into the public domain. It is when the principal actors hand off the process to parties who do not understand each other's values that trouble happens. (Typically, it is not the scientists or engineers, but the lawyers or financial managers on either side, who find themselves at loggerheads.)

Some misunderstandings over intellectual property stem from the different emphasis on time in the marketplace and the academic research world. A competitive advantage comes from getting an idea to the market first. Particularly in industries such as pharmaceuticals or commercial electronics, the source of value is that race to market, not permanent protection of intellectual property. Firms want to exploit the advantages of an innovation before competitors catch up, because they inevitably will: 18 to 24 months later, someone else will have a better product. In the 1990s, a company cannot rest on its patents and base itself on a single idea, as many did in the '50s or '60s. The strategy is to go get the next idea, the next, and the next, so that constant innovation becomes a corporate lifestyle. There is no corporate incentive to lock up intellectual property forever, and universities can often accommodate modest delays in public communications.

Research funding from corporate sources affects the branches of a university differently. Do these differences produce distortions of purpose? It is important to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The rise of federal funding for certain faculty activities and not others has altered the nature and character of the university. A corporate collaboration further complicates an already significant tension between groups of faculty and students. But if the university conducts its affairs optimally, faculty in all fields benefit from the increased wealth of the institution. The fragmentation of an integrated university into a "multiversity," a collection of diverse and often warring factions, is destructive -- especially for undergraduate students, who are, after all, our largest numerical responsibility. Serving the undergraduates properly is all about making the whole larger than the sum of its parts. Components of the community not directly involved with the private sector still have valuable perspectives to raise. The faculty who are least engaged financially in external funding are often the most likely to raise the correct questions of principle.

Whatever the source of funds may be, strings will be attached. In the early heyday of increasing federal funding, creating more opportunities for university research in the decades after World War II, many sounded alarm bells over the dependency on the federal government. There are healthy constraints and unhealthy constraints; the government may force us to do good things or bad things; but our dependency has altered the nature and character of the university. Similarly, a private benefactor or corporation's continued beneficence depends on his, her, or its satisfaction with your performance. Whatever kind of institution we turn to -- governmental, personally private, or corporately private -- a university needs to observe certain principles. My own experience at Columbia, Lehigh, and Arizona leads me to suggest certain points that rise to the level of principle:

  • Knowledge must ultimately enter the public domain. Until the Vietnam War era, university people did not hesitate to conduct classified research, but during that war, campus after campus gradually adopted principles defining classified work as inappropriate. Similarly, although many individual professors consult for corporations under contracts stipulating that the resulting intellectual property belongs to the corporation, there is an emerging standard saying it is inappropriate for a university to make a contract that permanently suppresses knowledge. Universities are amenable to temporary suppression, agreeing to hold back from publishing certain kinds of work until the corporation has the opportunity to file patent claims, but permanent secrecy is antithetical to what we're all about. Like the shared understanding that private benefactors may endow a faculty chair but may not overrule the university in naming the recipient, the consensus against permanent suppression of the fruits of research is a fundamental safeguard against inappropriate compromises.

  • Students come first. Student involvement in academic-corporate partnerships can lead to fruitful research, but confusion in roles and incentives can hamper a young person's career. Publication must not be delayed in a way that compromises the completion of theses or dissertations, and regularly constituted faculty must have primary responsibility for establishing the standards of student research. Some students who work for companies that contract with the university end up essentially supervised by a company officer (sometimes with an academic title like adjunct professor), not a professor. If the company approves the work, it is difficult for the faculty adviser to say "Well, it's not good enough for me." The final quality judgment about the student's research resides with university faculty.

  • Universities must be prepared to make ethical judgments. Most academic institutions have a commitment to certain principles, such as non-discrimination. Standing behind those principles occasionally means taking a hit financially, but we have to have confidence in our own value system. On a case-by-case basis, whatever university officials think of particular policies, we can usually wield more constructive impact working with other institutions than standing outside throwing stones. Most of us are pleased, for example, to have Reserve Officer Training Corps operations on our campuses, providing leadership training and opportunities that some students are anxious to avail themselves of. At the same time, most of us have a commitment to non-discrimination on the basis of a range of characteristics, including sexual orientation, and ROTC is part of the military, with its "don't ask, don't tell" policy. This is an uncomfortable compromise, but we cannot disavow all relationships with our government, so we try to work it out and have an influence on the government's own policies. A corporate funding source, likewise, can taint an academic institution through illegal or predatory behavior. But we fight integrity compromises on every turf every day; you simply have to manage the risks.

    Other aspects of academic-corporate collaboration are important, though they are not equivalent to principles. There are all kinds of arrangements splitting the benefits from royalties on patents among the university, the professor, and the corporation; these are just business judgments. Likewise, the relation between the work a researcher does in the academic setting and on outside consulting contracts can be complex. During my faculty years at UCLA, one day a week I engaged in technical consulting for aerospace companies, but the mind does not easily compartmentalize the intellectual activity performed on Fridays from what is done Saturday through Thursday. Nevertheless, both complex business negotiations and intellectual dialogue over this very point are now occurring, particularly in the life sciences, where the stakes are large.

    For the health of the university as a whole, society -- whether it is a tuition-paying or tax-paying society -- has to decide that universities are worth its financial support. I find grounds for optimism about university life in observing that we are becoming less preoccupied with our individual work and more aware of our responsibilities to the larger society, realizing that money will not appear to allow us to do the work we value unless someone outside finds it valuable as well. In the 1990s it is increasingly common for there to be three parties at the table: not only universities and corporations but federal or state governments, which are sponsoring collaborations to sustain the flow of benefit to the broader society, such as the federal Manufacturing Extension Partnerships or the Ben Franklin Partnership Program that Pennsylvania introduced to provide state money for organizations associated with universities. Government is more likely to assist a new project or center if it sees evidence that the corporate community attaches value to what you propose to do. Corporate sponsors can thus help catalyze a recognition that academic research deserves reinforcement with federal money.

    The learning experience will be very different in the next century, and the engagement of universities with private funding sources is likely to help shape our learning institutions. No one can responsibly make predictions, but considering the changes in technology and the increasing importance of learning to the economy, the way human beings learn may involve far more varied mechanisms. We are now locked into a pattern where people go to elementary and secondary schools, then colleges and universities, obtain credentials, and then in some formal sense stop learning, though of course real learning continues independently. I suspect that in the decades ahead, the credentialing process within a linear, hierarchical structure - from high school diplomas through bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees -- will give way to a more complex enterprise marked by more self-directed learning (through the Internet or its 21st-century counterpart) and a greater multiplicity of resources. Church-run universities have long been part of the fabric of American higher education, and corporate universities may eventually come to assume a similar role: There are now private for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix or the satellite-based National Technological University, as well as Motorola University, a largely internal learning organization focused on the needs of corporate employees. Whatever form our institutions take, the challenges of balancing benefits and values remain the same. Accepting the burdens and responsibilities of working with funding sources is an integral part of advancing a university.

    Related links...

  • Background on Dr. Peter Likins

  • University of Arizona Office of Technology Transfer

  • Gerhard Casper, "Come the Millennium, Where the University?" (lecture to American Educational Research Association, 1995)

  • Moira Muldoon, "A Doctorate in Doom,'" Salon (on a corporate university for video-game programmers)

    PETER LIKINS, Ph.D., is president of the University of Arizona and a former provost of Columbia University.