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Tenure and Promotion Trends: Key Takeaways from the AUTM Eastern Region Meeting

In October I was honored to moderate a session at AUTM’s Eastern Region Meeting in Raleigh, NC, delving into the wide range of initiatives that universities are undertaking to consider tech transfer activities in tenure and promotion (T&P) reviews. We were fortunate to have two informative and engaging panelists: Justin Streuli, director of LaunchUNCG, the NC Entrepreneurship Center, and Greensboro I-Corps at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Daniel Stancil, Alcoa Distinguished Professor and head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at North Carolina State University.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we agree with policies that support the inclusion of commercialization activities in faculty advancement decisions. Our panelists supported that viewpoint with specific examples from their own experience—as well as a few important caveats, lessons learned, and questions for the field to consider moving forward.

Adding Tech Transfer to T&P Policy Will Take Time To Gain Traction

Both UNCG and NC State have policies that factor commercialization efforts into T&P, hoping to shift faculty behavior and culture in support of economic development, recognize meritorious tech transfer work, and encourage faculty entrepreneurship.

NC State’s policy has paid off with a much more entrepreneurial culture—but it has taken time for success to come to fruition. Dr. Stancil pointed out that 10 years ago, there was little interest in tech transfer activities, and invention disclosures were largely considered a waste of time.

‘Today, the faculty at NC State is much more entrepreneurial and tech transfer is viewed positively. In fact, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department alone now discloses inventions at a rate of about one per week.’ -Daniel Stancil, North Carolina State University

“Today, the faculty at NC State is much more entrepreneurial and tech transfer is viewed positively,” said Stancil. “In fact, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department alone now discloses inventions at a rate of about one per week.”

UNCG’s 10-year-old policy shift is also gaining traction, but the results have been more subtle. Mr. Streuli mentioned that while only a few T&P cases have included tech transfer activities so far, the university is seeing a shift in the types of faculty drawn to UNCG because of the policy. Moving forward, the university is hoping to learn more from NC State’s experience to continue building its program.

“We’re now putting in place the people and processes necessary to help faculty translate tech transfer success into artifacts that are valuable to T&P committees,” said Streuli.

Defining the Do’s and Don’ts of Making TT Part of T&P Policy

Making tech transfer part of official T&P policy may be appropriate for many universities, but our panelists pointed out several caveats and considerations for an intelligent transition:

‘In writing new T&P policies to consider tech transfer, it’s important to make them inclusive, not restrictive.’ -Justin Streuli, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Do make sure you have university-wide buy-in

Streuli and Stancil agreed that success with new policies requires both documentation and communication from key leaders. Include tech transfer activities in dossier and department voting faculty discussions, and make sure communication for doing so is coming from the top down to gain traction across departments and in the T&P process itself.

Do define acceptable metrics

T&P decision makers need artifacts that demonstrate tech transfer value, just as they would consider scholarly works. Tech transfer offices should work with departments to help explain the different metrics that may be under consideration, such as invention disclosures, patents applied for and issued, licenses executed, and companies started.

Our panelists noted that some tech transfer artifacts may be more notable than others. For example, disclosures and applications show participation, but issued patents are likely the only thing that would be considered comparable to a refereed paper. However, they also cautioned against using a formula to weigh each possible item in a dossier (e.g., a start-up equals three refereed papers). The full breadth of artifacts should be addressed holistically.

Do not make tech transfer activities requirements for T&P

Our panelists also added the caveat that tech transfer should be considered in T&P decisions, but not required for faculty advancement. There are obvious reasons for this: notably, commercialization activities simply do not apply to all departments. But in prompting our panelists further, I also pointed out a less obvious reason: it has been well documented that women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields participate less than their male counterparts in the innovation ecosystem, and therefore making tech transfer a requirement could further hinder their advancement potential. Our panelists agreed.

“In writing new T&P policies to consider tech transfer, it’s important to make them inclusive, not restrictive,” noted Streuli.

Do encourage tenure first, startups later

In giving tech transfer more prominence in T&P decisions, it’s important to not inadvertently diminish the scholarly focus of young faculty. Our panelists noted that there is plenty of time for ambitious staff to pursue startups, and that encouraging them to focus on tenure first without the distractions and demands of running a new company, is a smart move.

Do not be deterred by concerns of overburdening TTOs

A possible hesitation in including tech transfer in T&P policy has been the idea that TTOs will be strained to keep up with reporting and documentation requirements. Streuli and Stancil agreed that this is not a good reason to leave commercialization activities out of policy. Instead, address the concern with appropriate IT and expectations: TTOs should make sure they have flexible database systems in place that can easily provide reports and can grow with policy changes as needed. Also, set expectations about what your standard reports will be for tech transfer evidence used in P&T decisions, and communicate that clearly to faculty and department chairs.

Looking Ahead, With Questions

Our panel discussion at AUTM ERM was just the beginning—certainly not the conclusion. Our panelists and I all have questions moving forward, and these were of significant interest to the highly engaged audience:

How will individual TT activities be weighed against each other? Should some count more than others? Can reporting help or hurt the process?

How will these policies impact TTO/department/inventor relationships?

Will these policies put pressure on faculty to apply for prestige patents?

How can the policies themselves amplify the pros and mitigate concerns?

What are your thoughts? If your university is considering tech transfer in T&P decisions, what has been your experience with that policy so far? Take our short poll to share your perspective.

Continuing the Discussion at the AUTM Annual Meeting

We’ll pick these questions up for further consideration in our next panel discussion on the topic at AUTM 2020, March 8-11 in San Diego. We hope to see you there. And, if you have specific experiences about P&T on your campus that you’d like to share, we’re interested in hearing more. Please contact us to share your story.