With slight variations and emphases, the three criteria that dominate tenure reviews at four-year colleges and universities are teaching, research and service.
On Friday, the board of Texas A&M University elevated "patents or commercialization of research, where applicable" to the same status as teaching, research and service in tenure reviews. Faculty leaders had recommended against the change, saying that it could distort the priorities of young professors. But at least some young professors in fields where research leads to patents say that the change is needed.
While not claiming with certainty that their policy is unique, Texas A&M officials say that they are the first in Texas to make such a shift and that they have not identified another university anywhere to place such an emphasis on rewarding professors who can patent their work. "We want to send a message that Texas A&M is open for business," said Robert D. McTeer, chancellor of the system, in an interview Friday.
Prior to Friday's vote, Texas A&M, the nine-campus university system had five official criteria for tenure review: teaching, research, service, professional growth, and (where applicable) quality of patient care. McTeer said that the patient care criterion was a model for how the new measure would be used. Just as patient care is relevant for medical professors, but not for political scientists, he said that the commercialization factor would probably have the most weight at the system's flagship campus at College Station, and there only in certain fields, although it could help professors throughout the system.
McTeer said he pushed for the change because he had heard from untenured faculty members that they were coming up with ideas for patents or new businesses, but felt pressure to put aside those ideas and instead focus their time on such activities as writing research papers to help them reach publishing goals. "They felt it was necessary to postpone commercial activities until after tenure," he said.
The new policy isn't going to lead to radical changes, McTeer said. But noting his background as an economist, he said that tenure criteria have an influence "at the margin" of how junior professors decide to spend their time.
Asked if this policy shift might play into the corporatization of higher education, McTeer said that "I can see how purists would be worried," but that "I don't think we're anywhere near that point" where there is too much corporate influence in academe.
Before taking his proposal to the Board of Regents, McTeer ran it by the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate at College Station. That group was against the idea, almost unanimously so, according to R. Douglas Slack, speaker of the Faculty Senate.
"We wanted to maintain the scholarly nature of our guidelines," Slack said.
Seeking patents and commercializing research are entirely appropriate, especially at a land-grant university like Texas A&M, Slack said. He noted that the tenure guidelines already included such factors as one way among many to demonstrate the value of research, and he said that faculty members didn't have any problem with that.
Slack is a professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences and his research focuses on efforts to help preserve certain endangered species. He said that his research has never led him to patents or commercial ventures, and that he doesn't think it could, so he can't imagine how such a policy would encourage a shift in his work -- or reward a professor with his interests and knowledge.
The dangers, he said, are for professors who work in fields with considerable commercial potential. "They are going to feel a lot of pressure to put time into patents and commercializing research," potentially at the expense of research and teaching, Slack said. He questioned especially whether this is appropriate early in careers, when professors may need to devote themselves to whatever their top ideas are to make a real contribution, one that might well yield lucrative payoffs well after a tenure decision.
And these professors could easily lose on multiple fronts, Slack said, noting that most new businesses fail. "A faculty member may waste a lot of time trying to commercialize something -- time that should have been spent on research and service and teaching -- and at end of the tenure window, they may have a failed business and nothing to show for it," Slack said.
"Right now we expect people to be reasonably balanced" in how they spend their time, but that may not be possible if they are starting new businesses or focusing on patents, he said.
Some professors whose work leads to commercialization favor the new policy.
John Criscione is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, about to come up for his tenure review. He studies heart disease and has invented a device, for which a patent is pending, that surgeons can implant to help people whose hearts aren't pumping properly. He has also created a business -- licensing his device from Texas A&M, which would benefit from any success -- to market the product.
Criscione said that he was in an awkward position prior to the new policy. Traditional academic criteria "don't really value the commercial aspect" of his work. At the same time, investors told him that they would only be interested in backing his company if he was directly involved.
"If you invent a technology and then just move on to something else, it will never make it to market," he said.
If universities are going to give researchers money to do research that they hope will help people and the economy, Criscione said, they need to understand that the process doesn't end with the discovery -- and they should reward all of that work in a tenure review. "I was entrusted with funds to do this research. I think it would be almost misconduct to drop it and not pursue the potential this has."
At the same time, he acknowledged that his pursuit has taken him far from the research role tenure has theoretically rewarded. "This isn't lofty work. This isn't the academic work that's going to produce a whole bunch of papers," he said. "I'm on the phone looking for money, paying taxes, figuring out regulations. It's not the elegance of academics, but it needs to be done."