Insights December 2010

The Spinoff (Part 3): Does Faculty Tenure Harm Commercialization?

Neil Seeman

Tenure is supposed to ring-fence the right to academic freedom, helping tenured professors to challenge the status quo without reprisal. It has been my observation that people who challenge the status quo are those who possess a rare combination of courage and humility; no job can guarantee that.

Whatever its original goal, tenure is a quaint economic anachronism, wholly unsustainable in the Great Stagnation. The rafters are falling on post-secondary education in the G20: money is scarce. Health spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is biting more and more out of public education; it is also constricting the ability to pay out-of-pocket for much of private education. As parents increasingly seek value-for-money for their children’s post-secondary education, they will opt for schools like the tenure-free Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. Just a decade old, the engineering school – where each admitted student receives a scholarship that pays for half tuition -- is highly ranked (8th in undergraduate engineering by U.S. News and World Report). Teachers and curricula get evaluated constantly by students and alumni. A culture of entrepreneurship thrives. During senior year, students work with a local company as consultants on real engineering projects.

Does faculty tenure deaden the capacity and willingness of researchers to create spinoff companies? If tenure really gives birth to so many wonderfully contrarian ideas, it should generate from this multitude of brilliance at least a few new break-out companies: one market test of a truly great business idea (e.g. Google) is that it survives the brutish marketplace of seed investors.

My preliminary data suggest that most people across North America question the assumption that tenure is a forklift for commercialization. Using RIWI’s TimeTrender™ (*) software to gather a random sample of Internet users from across the continent, I surveyed 1,791 English-language North American Web users over one week. When asked whether tenure hurts or harms University researchers’ capacity to spin off companies, two thirds of respondents said they weren’t sure. The rest were evenly divided: 18% said it hurts, and 17% said tenure helps. The percentage (66%) who said it is unclear whether faculty tenure hurts or helps commercialization was the same in Canada as it was in the United States.

In Canada, there is suggestive evidence that tenure does not support commercialization. Citation indices show that Canadian health and scientific research is superb. Yet there is a vast gap between our impressive academic citation count and our innovation score as compared to other countries. Canada’s labour force is among the best educated in the world. Canadian universities invest heavily in research and development. But something is obstructing the road between stellar research and commercialization. Lots of pre-financial meltdown ideas have been proffered to solve this challenge (i.e., we need more university R&D, more business R&D, more local venture capital), but people seem afraid to talk about one of the most potentially obvious roadblocks to spin-off commercialization in North America: faculty tenure.

When someone is worried about whether they will have a job in six months, they tend to become entrepreneurial. They write business plans. They network with other potential innovators and collaborators. They pull on available resources asking how to sustain a business if they were to lose their day job. They learn about product distribution. And they learn about failure. Careers take many detours, which is why failure is critical to personal growth and to business leadership. Tenure, or job security, inspires none of this activity. As we bid adieu to tenure, challenging the status quo may get a tiny bit easier.

About the Author(s)

Longwoods essayist Neil Seeman, Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College, is author of XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame (forthcoming). He is now writing a book called “The Spinoff”, which draws on some of the content in this series.


*Disclosure: The author’s brother is a member of the board of the RIWI Corporation.


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