CU: New industry group not a threat to academic freedom


University of Colorado leaders say that a recently announced push for more collaboration with industry does not mean the corporatization of the university or pose a threat to academic freedom, the publication of research findings or the faculty’s control over the curriculum.

Last week CU-Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced the formation of a new 11-member Strategic Advisory Council consisting mostly of current and former business executives and venture capitalists who have been asked to, among other things, “identify support for new research collaborations and revise our fiscal and organizational model to maximize effectiveness and efficiency.”

He also said in an April 18 press release that the new council is expected to “strengthen the public-private partnerships that helped establish CU-Boulder and that have sustained it for nearly 140 years.”

The university has been under increasing financial pressure for a dozen years, as the percentage of its budget funded by the state has dwindled into single digits and costs have been borne more and more by unpopular tuition hikes. So receiving more research funding from the private sector looks especially appealing, but some say it can have its tradeoffs.

In the past, efforts to increase industry involvement with universities has sometimes created tensions between faculty and administrators. While CU sorely needs the cash from private corporations, red flags go up for faculty when industry, in exchange for its investment, wants to exert influence on the faculty-controlled curriculum or prevent undesirable research findings from being published.

“What worries me is that, so often when you do these things, like with genetically engineered foods, part of the deal is when you do research and collaborate with a corporation, you’re not free to publish,” says mathematics professor Marty Walter, a member of the Boulder Faculty Assembly. “You sign an agreement that gives the corporation that’s sponsoring the research final right of refusal to not let it be published. If the results don’t come out the way Exxon or Monsanto would like them to come out, then it doesn’t get published. … I would never do that, I just value my independence too much.”

Walter adds that even without such formal agreements, faculty can feel pressured by industry, if that’s where their research funding is coming from.

“Even if you don’t sign something like that, it can be made very clear that if you want more funding, you better try to cooperate,” he says. “And that sort of thing you can’t really track. It’s just unfortunate that the state of Colorado doesn’t value independent research enough to fund it.”

The problem with squelched findings, Walter explains, is that the results don’t get added to the body of public knowledge in the field, and it inhibits free exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

I think the university will say that [academic freedom] is what they are dedicated to, but you wave a few million dollars in front of them, I think that probably might change their mind,” he says. “Who’s going to keep track of this? There’s no journalism on campus, no one going around asking people and investigating if you’re doing this kind of research.”

But Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture insists that the university never approves contracts with industry that give a corporation the right to prohibit publication of the results.

“If it comes to that, then we politely say we are not interested,” he says. “We would never sign that; that’s contrary to our purpose.”

According to Sture, the only possible exceptions include separate research that faculty perform for a company as side work, and when a corporation requests a delay in the publication of thesis or dissertation written by a graduate student — when the research was funded by the company and involves proprietary information — to allow time for filing patent applications.

“The key is to support the students and having a free exchange of ideas and getting publications out,” Sture says. “There may be a delay in putting the student’s thesis on the shelf. That’s the only part we can engage in, and it’s only a couple of months’ delay.”

He adds that the members of the new council are “well-informed, temperate people who keep sort of a large view,” and that there will be “no meddling with any curricular matters.”

Sture acknowledges that “some faculty have had uncertainties about this, and I’ve told them clearly, ‘On my name, Stein Sture, I’m telling you this because I know these facts, because I’m sitting at the apex of it.’ … One can make arrangements with more industry involvement without compromising anything. Other universities have shown, both public and private, that this is possible.”

Boulder Faculty Assembly Chair Jerry Peterson, a physics professor who has served in Sture’s role on an interim basis, says he hasn’t heard faculty concerns about the preservation of academic freedom in the face of increased industry funding.

“I would have heard things, and I haven’t,” he told BW. “We can’t be bought that easily.”

When asked about the concerns regarding academic freedom, DiStefano points out that CU has a policy and a committee on restricted, proprietary and classified research, and the university only enters into agreements that comply with the policy’s commitment to open dissemination of new knowledge. He says CU rarely signs proprietary agreements — and only with that committee’s approval.

“While this point can still be a point of contention in contract negotiations, most companies are familiar with this fundamental academic principle and they know that we as a partner are not going to compromise academic freedom or integrity,” DiStefano wrote. “CU-Boulder will continue to maintain these safeguards for research and the curriculum as a condition of any research partnership or agreement we enter into. … Both the university and industry share an interest in the well-established practice of protecting early results before a publication or patent application. Other than that, researchers must be free to publish.”