Entrepreneurship vs. Scholarship?

Trying to wring revenues from research poses risks to academe, one scholar warns.
June 10, 2011

WASHINGTON -- With state funding for higher education on the wane and the public growing more restive about continuing increases in tuition, universities are seeking out other sources of money.

A popular strategy -- one with less potential risk than raising money from donors (especially when that money comes with strings attached and from sources that some in academe find problematic) -- is to trade on the intellectual capital of faculty members by bringing the fruits of their scholarly work to market.

Advocates for such an entrepreneurial orientation of universities tout its range of benefits. By helping to connect faculty research to the wider marketplace, the thinking goes, universities can generate revenue, give students a chance to see the application of their education, and demonstrate to a skeptical public (and politicians) that research holds real-world relevance. In doing so, such thinking continues, universities can better position themselves as economic development and job creation engines.

But is encouraging entrepreneurship in the professoriate truly a risk-free proposition?

Not according to Carey D. Balaban, professor of otolaryngology, neurobiology, communication sciences and disorders, and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He made his case in a pre-recorded speech that was presented during a sparsely attended session, called “Balancing Scholarship and Entrepreneurship: Issues for the Evolving Academic Environment," that took place at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors here Thursday.

By uncritically embracing entrepreneurship, Balaban warned, universities risk changing how they view the nature of research. If research is not prized chiefly as an act of scholarship that should be shared in the public interest, he argued, then it becomes "potential intellectual property with a market value that needs to be protected and licensed.”

In the process, Balaban said, the norms of scholarly conduct -- openness in sharing information, and the valuing of personal freedom and integrity -- also risk being skewed. So, too, does the perceived purpose of researchers. “What it turns into is the university and scientists and scholars become partners in a process of commercialization and technology transfer,” he said. “Faculty members and research programs become viewed as assets to be managed in a portfolio with some set value.”

Balaban further cautioned that a commercial orientation to research also can weaken cooperation between faculty members. What was once thought of as a work in progress, he said, becomes intellectual property -- shared with colleagues only on the condition that they sign confidentiality agreements.

“This changes subtly the way we view our peers. They become commercial competitors,” he said. Of course, faculty conflict can arise in academe without the corrosive influence of money: rivalries can rend departments, and scholars can vie for credit for a particularly juicy new piece of research.

At the same time, the intellectual capital and industry-creating potential of universities is a popular selling point for presidents, with many universities and their advocates quick to cite not just the economic impact of their institutions, but also the number of new companies seeded by faculty, students and graduates.

Conflicts of interest can crop up in which the private research or consulting work of faculty members complicates the priorities of their university. For example, Harvard University professors came under fire earlier this year when it was discovered that the company they founded had once provided management consulting services to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime in Libya -- work that some critics contended had the effect of bestowing legitimacy from Harvard on Qaddafi.

Though the number of audience members at Thursday's session peaked at 10, comments came quickly and ranged widely. Some saw the institutional interest in entrepreneurship as reflecting a bottom-line, market-driven mentality that arose, if not necessarily intentionally, from the Bayh-Dole Act, though that act was not mentioned by name. That legislation has been praised by research universities, among others, and gave institutions of higher education, small businesses and nonprofits control of the intellectual property of their inventions if they were funded with government research money.

Some in the audience also worried that economic productivity -- including faculty members' ability to capitalize on their ideas -- might encroach on decisions about promotion and tenure, where research, teaching and service are more typical criteria.

“Does economics determine merit?” Rose Constantino, associate professor of nursing at Pitt, asked during her presentation.


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