Wednesday, April 05, 2006

To:            Sheldon Kurtz

                  Vice President, Faculty Senate


From:        Steve M. Collins

                  Chair, Committee on Faculty Policies and Compensation

                  4326 SC


Subject:     Commercialization and Intellectual Freedom


As you missed the Faculty Council meeting last week, I write to inform you of an issue I raised last Tuesday with Dick LeBlond. This issue was subsequently discussed by the Faculty Council at their meeting.


You may recall that on March 23rd, the Des Moines Register published a story on the mixed messages the University was sending when it helps pay thru JPEC for a student business that makes it easy for UI students to find inexpensive alcohol. The next day the Register published a story announcing that the UI would no longer support this student business through the Bedell Entrepreneurial Learning Lab. On March 28th, the Daily Iowan published an editorial arguing that the “potential success of the business merits the UI’s continued involvement” and chastising the University for choosing to protect “its public image over its core purpose to foster a creative learning environment.” 


The DI editorial got me to thinking about a range of questions related to the University’s current and future efforts to promote economic development by directly supporting the creation of new businesses (or the expansion of existing businesses) by students, faculty and staff, and members of the public. They include:


  1. How should one decide which businesses will be supported and which will not?


  1. The UI Operations Manual states that “Every student is entitled to the same intellectual freedom which the faculty member enjoys” (III.15.2.f). What are those freedoms within the context of private business creation or expansion?


  1. Under what circumstances can the UI properly abridge student intellectual freedoms in order to protect other interests of the University?


  1. Faculty entrepreneurs have academic freedoms. What are those freedoms within the context of private business creation or expansion?
  2. Under what circumstance, if any, can the UI properly abridge faculty academic freedoms in order to protect other interests of the University?


  1. How does the employment status (student, staff, faculty, public member) of the entrepreneurs involved enter into the decision making process?


  1. Faculty members engaged in programs designed to support the entrepreneurial efforts of others have academic freedoms. How do these freedoms get taken into account in decisions about which businesses will be supported?


It occurs to me that the answers to the above depend in part upon the relationship between a specific economic development program and the University’s mission (for example, whether the program is an instructional program or a service program). If I am right about this, then it would seem to be prudent to clearly define the nature and rationale for individual economic development programs.


My sense is that the questions I raise are complex. In addition to the intellectual freedom and academic freedom issues, issues of conflict of commitment, the propriety of supporting businesses they do not or are not perceived to serve the public welfare, potential conflicts with university values or other initiatives, use of public monies to further the private financial interests of UI faculty and staff, and regential constraints on competing with the private sector all seem to come into play.


As the recent experience with the Register demonstrates, direct UI support of business creation can be politically sensitive. It strikes me that it would be prudent for the University to work through the questions I raise sooner rather than later. Given the intellectual and academic freedom dimensions of these issues, it was my suggestion to Dick LeBlond that the Faculty Council consider initiating a conversation on campus about these matters.


Please note that it is not my suggestion that the Faculty Council look into the student business described in the Register. To my mind, the questions I raise warrant discussion no matter what did or did not happen in that case.