Money Changes Everything

We should be more creative in thinking about how we reward people for what they've done.

—Rich Rothenberg, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine

Previous AE coverage of these issues:

Money Changes Everything
Commerce, philanthropy, and the culture of the academy

"We should be more creative in thinking about how we reward people for what they've done."
Rich Rothenberg, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine

"If I'm going to accept [the Sloan Foundation's] money in good faith, I have to minimally carry out their agenda."
Bradd Shore, Professor of Anthropology

University, Inc.
License income, patents, start-ups, and research expenditures for a selection of eleven institutions

Who sees the money?
Emory's recently revised intellectual property ownership policy

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Rothenberg was one of three leaders of last spring’s Gustafson Faculty Seminar on “Scholarship, Entrepreneurship, and the Corporatization of the Academy.”

Academic Exchange (AE): What theme in the seminar was most compelling to you?

Rich Rothenberg (RR): The analogy wasn’t made exactly, but the medical-technology-university complex, as it were, is in many ways very similar to football teams. Football, a dominant sport in universities, becomes the tail that wags the dog—it has enormous power in universities because it is such a money-maker. Something similar is brewing now for scientists, technicians, engineers, and others involved in products that may have enormous payoff. The risks are very high and the probability of reward is extremely low, but that reward can be enormous. If people do win the payoff, then what they have on their hands is a football team: a group with great power in the university, one that is essentially connected to the university for reasons involving prestige but is freely functioning, free-standing, and making a tremendous amount of money.

AE: How did you approach the financial forces that shape the culture of the university?

RR: Emory’s soul—where it is, what it is, and how it manifests itself—is very difficult to pin down because it is such a changing environment right now. With the choices it’s made, Emory is now committed to growth, to expansion, to trying to fulfill a promise of greatness over the next years. And that means relationships within the university are going to be formed by that kind of commitment, rather than growing organically. Ultimately, it will have an enormous influence on what happens. It’s a more soul-less route to go—more controlled and directed. Certainly that route has an impact on how people view their place in the university, how connected people are to this place. The faster the rate of growth, the more corporate the model, the less connected people are. Because just as in corporations, if you get a better job, you move elsewhere.

There is a sense of discontent and insecurity, and a sense that things are changing rapidly and it’s not quite clear why, in spite of the fact that there are really wonderful people around, including many in the upper-level administration. These are superb people who know what they’re doing and are good at what they do. So it’s not because of quality. It has something to do more with organizational zeitgeist and the spirit that this kind of growth engenders.

AE: What discussions did you have in the seminars about control of data and secrecy?

RR: We talked about this a great deal, how fundamentally injurious it is to scientific enterprise. It really is a question of maturity. We are immature as a society and particularly as universities in our ability to deal with this rise in entrepreneurship. We get people who blast out from the starting blocks and are making huge amounts of money, and they have to be reined back in in some way. Frequently they just leave and form a private company. It is fairly chaotic, and somehow we have to learn to handle it with a bit more order and dignity. I say it that way because people become very undignified in the kind of fights that go on over who’s going to get what and where the royalties go. I have a feeling that people didn’t start in this business with avarice, but the sudden realization that you can get millions of dollars out of something you invented does change hearts and minds.

AE: Do you think these issues should affect tenure and promotion decisions?

RR: They’re a part of the decisions now, although subrosa. If you have not written many papers but have sixteen patents, all of which are making a lot of money, I think the university would probably be most interested in your getting tenure. It may be a good idea to make this more transparent, to make it something people understand.

We should be more creative in thinking about how we reward people for what they’ve done. For some, I think that inventing something that makes a lot of money is a creative act. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, there’s something good about it. What becomes bad is some of the ramifications, the economic spinoffs, the cultural or social effects that accrue that can be injurious to other people. Corporatization changes the mentality of the university.