Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Tenure and Promotion and Commercialization, Oh My!

I've been asked a couple of times lately... "Does commercialization activity count towards tenure at Georgia Tech?" The answer is a bit complicated, so I figured it's worth discussing it here.

What is tenure? It's traditionally referred to as "lifetime employment." In the University System of Georgia, it means that the individual is guaranteed employment for "two out of every three consecutive academic terms (normally for fall and spring terms) until retirement, dismissal for cause, or release because of financial exigency, or program modification as determined by the Board." So "lifetime employment" isn't a bad description.

Being granted tenure is a big deal. It has to be approved by the college dean, the president of the university, and the Board of Regents.

At Georgia Tech, the dividing line is typically between the ranks of "Assistant Professor" (not tenured) and "Associate Professor" (tenured). (Note: there are all sorts of details and exceptions in all directions, but let's stick with the mainline case.) An Assistant Professor is expected to spend five or more years building his or her case to be granted tenure. Promotion and tenure decisions are made separately, although the criteria used as a basis for each decision are similar.

In both cases, one of the critical requirements is demonstration of original and creative contributions to the individual's field of study. In the academic world, that mostly translates to peer-reviewed publications: research papers in scholarly journals, invited presentations at conferences, and books or book chapters. It can also include other peer-reviewed documents, such as grant applications or inventions leading to patents. So, yes, a patent (or patent application) "counts towards tenure," but only inasmuch as it demonstrates the creativity and scholarship of the individual, not relative to the commercialization potential of the patent.

In short, to be granted tenure, you have to demonstrate your capability as a scholar. Everything else is secondary in that decision.

But once you've been granted tenure... then what? The "publish or perish" pressure is reduced. (There's still the "win grant money or perish" pressure, but that's different.) You have a chance to take a deep breath and decide how the next phase of your career should proceed. Some individuals will choose to maintain a purely academic focus. Others, however, may be attracted to exploring the real-world impact of their work through commercialization. This is particularly likely at a school like Georgia Tech that has traditionally had deep ties to industrial partners... originally in the Southeast, then nationally, and now worldwide.

For promotion from Associate Professor to full Professor, the Faculty Handbook requires "clear evidence that the person has demonstrated consistent performance in the making of original and innovative contributions that are nationally recognized for their excellence."

There are many ways to demonstrate that excellence. One would be having patents issued that have a clear impact on an industry. Another would be founding a company that advances the state of the art (and which, incidentally, hires a lot of Georgia Tech graduates). Yet another would be performing sponsored research that the corporate sponsor uses to develop or update a major product line. All of those are legitimate activities for an academic leader... but they are all related to commercialization of research.

Commercialization is not enough, of course. An individual must demonstrate excellence in several areas, including teaching, research, and service to the university, to the public, and to the profession. But successful commercialization can be one facet of a comprehensive approach to building a career in academia.

So, 600 words later: "Does commercialization activity count towards tenure at Georgia Tech?" It's not the focus. Those younger faculty members should be busy demonstrating their scholarship as recognized by their peers.

But "Does commercialization activity count towards promotion at Georgia Tech?" Absolutely! The mid-career Associate Professor looking for advancement to full Professor will need to demonstrate multiple accomplishments—and commercialization can be one of them.

How does this relate to VentureLab? If we identify a non-tenured Assistant Professor with an interesting idea for commercialization... we'll want to look at it, but we're going to hope there is an active graduate student or two to handle most of the heavy lifting. The Assistant Professor is properly going to be focused like a laser on getting tenure, and we aren't going to interfere with that.

Our ideal candidate is an Associate Professor (or full Professor) with an interest in commercializing his or her technology -- ideally with the same active graduate student or two -- but without the desire to "be the boss" and run the company himself or herself. That leads into the topic of the appropriate role of a faculty member in a startup... and that will be the subject of a future post.

Reference: Georgia Tech Faculty Handbook.

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