Small Policy Differences Could Have Big Results

News Analysis

A few words can mean a lot--or so some faculty members of the Science Policy Committee are saying.

When Harvard decided in May to allow the acceptance of stock as for a University-owned license, the legislation it enacted differed by that amount from the committee's recommendations.

Although the distinctions may seem subtle, the relevant academic issues--and dollar values--are potentially huge.

In 1993, then-provost Jerry R. Green organized a committee to address what he called a lack of coherent University policy on issues of institutional conflict of interest.

In September, after two years of intermitient and deliberations, the committee issued a lengthy report. Some committee members said the University's decision ignores the spirit of those recommendations, which had been widely circulated before the University's decision.


Various committee members and faculty are upset about several provisions of the decision, but point to two in particular as particularly egregious:

* The University's policy leaves the door open for investments of cash in start-up companies whose equity the University holds, saying they will not be made "[i]n general" but allowing them after a "special review."

The Science Policy Committee recommended against such investments altogether.

* The University's policy allows the stock to be accepted on the basis of consultation with the "deans or their designees." The committee's report, on the other hand, says the "separation of investment decisions from academic management is of central importance."

Some members of the committee have blasted the Corporation's policy as ambiguous--particularly the provision which would allow second round investments in some cases.

"We need a set of principles and a policy to stand by," said Green, who is now Leverett professor in the University. "If the policy does not work well, it can be changed. To weaken it from the outset is to get Harvard off to a bad start in this area."

Administrators defend that particular ambiguity by saying that the University wanted to keep its options open.

But one example of the potential costs of an unclear policy is the case of the University of Arizona.

In the mid-1980s, that university was sued by a company claiming to have rights to a second technology, being developed at the university, that was licensed to a second company.

Because the university did not have straightforward policies on either institutional or individual conflicts of interest, one official said, the suit was difficult to defend against.

"Our policies weren't clearly articulated, and we did not have any ongoing oversight once the company was approved," said Rita C. Manak, director of the university's Office of Technology Transfer.