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July 23, 2014

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Faculty’s role in controlling tuition

Are university faculty members doing their part to control the tuition costs that students are required to pay to pursue university education? Students are the reason for the existence of faculty in our colleges and universities. It is common knowledge that the tuition costs are steadily climbing at a higher clip than the rate of inflation.

Tuition and fees for taking 12 credits of course work at UNLV is $5,382 for a state resident. For nonresidents, tuition and fees mushroomed to $18,292. For graduate students, tuition and costs for residents and nonresidents for enrolling in nine credits of course work is $7,948 and $21,958, respectively.

Even at universities that are blessed with rich endowments such as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, there have been tuition increases this academic year in the range of 3 to 5 percent from the previous academic year.

As online education becomes more prevalent, the brick-and-mortar universities will face more pressure to increase their tuition costs because of a reduction in enrollment in such physical institutions. Compounding the higher cost of tuition is the uncertainty faced by students of finding suitable jobs after graduation. This has raised the question of whether there is a proper return on investment in a college education.

Given this, what can universities do to alleviate the burden of increasing tuition on students and their parents? More and more, universities are being asked to run as businesses. The bottom line is to generate a profit, as it will help alleviate runaway tuition increases.

It is the responsibility of not only the fundraisers at universities, but also the administrators, faculty and everyone else employed by the university to do their part to control tuition costs through innovation and efficiency.

Innovation is not reserved for those in white lab coats. There is room for innovation in the day-to-day processes that every employee carries out. For example, reducing the number of steps in an existing process can result in cost savings. It can also lead to efficiency of process. Both of these contribute to the bottom-line profit of the university.

Faculty members in particular bear a higher responsibility in not only controlling costs through the efficiency of process, but in actually raising cash for the university.

As a segment of the university population, the faculty salaries take a huge chunk of the budget. As universities vie for the best to serve on their faculty, this piece of the budget pie may not shrink unless measures are taken to enhance the revenue and profit of universities.

Participation in academic governance by faculty is central to the issue of alleviating the burden of increased tuition on students. Faculty members should reflect on how they can help alleviate the tuition problem. When they do, the answer become apparent: It is though monetization of faculty’s intellectual abilities.

Universities should support and encourage faculty to offer guest lectures, seminars and consulting, not to mention serving on the boards of outside organizations and writing books. The university could share some of the revenue faculty generate.

Scientific and engineering faculty members have a more direct way of monetizing their intellectual capabilities through commercialization activities. It is through obtaining rights for intellectual property in their inventions and commercially viable technology arising out of university research labs. The inventions made by the faculty make their way into patents with the help of the university legal department. These patents and other intellectual property would be owned by the university with a royalty sharing arrangement with the inventor.

Most universities do not actively monetize their innovative technologies, know-how and creative works often because universities do not have a requirement that the faculty generate revenue from these valuable assets. There is good reason for this. University research is funded to improve public health and promote open-ended scientific inquiry.

In addition, most university patents are not commercially applicable and remain unexploited. Also, the faculty tenure system at present is based on broadcasting knowledge and know-how, not contributing to commercial product development efforts. As a result, the vast majority of university intellectual property is distributed freely through scientific publications, through personal relationships with industry researchers and by graduating students out into the workforce.

Perhaps the faculty tenure process should be modified to make commercialization of intellectual capabilities a factor. Patents can be shared through license arrangements or outright sale. Likewise, know-how can be licensed with the faculty playing the role of facilitating the transfer of the technology from the research lab to the commercial establishment. Such activities generate ongoing or one-time royalties and can be structured to meet the revenue needs of the university and the responsible faculty.

Revenue generation for the university is now a universal activity of all faculty members. It should be made an integral part of the university statement of faculty’s rights and responsibilities. Such activity is bound to ameliorate, if not reduce, a raise in student tuition.

T. Rao Coca, Ph.D., J.D., is an expert in intellectual property and a former vice president of IGT. He lives in Henderson.

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