The University of Pittsburgh is telling all faculty and nonclerical staff they must sign agreements stating they “irrevocably assign and transfer to the university my rights, title and interest to all intellectual property” they develop while employed there.
The administration says the agreements simply reflect existing campus intellectual property policies and that the signatures have become necessary to obtain federal research funding because of a 2011 Supreme Court case that Pitt says requires schools not only to have policies but also confirmation that employees will abide by them.
But an official with the American Association of University Professors, which has seen a number of agreements drafted by schools since the Stanford vs. Roche decision, said Wednesday such signatures are not a requirement to secure grant funding. Forcing faculty to sign them is a violation of academic freedom, said Cary Nelson, AAUP’s immediate past president.
“Everyone says your academic freedom gives you the right to decide which kind of research you do,” Mr. Nelson said. “Your academic freedom doesn’t end when you create something valuable. It extends to how that [research] enters the world.”
At Pitt, where a research team filed a federal lawsuit in January against the university over intellectual property rights, some expressed concern about the agreement’s wording, the sudden urgency to respond to a Supreme Court decision 3 years old and whether the agreements actually go beyond the university’s policies.
Those worries surfaced this week at a meeting of Pitt’s faculty assembly, which approved a resolution from the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee urging the offices of Provost Patricia Beeson and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher to delay a Sept. 16 deadline for signatures to be collected.
The committee is seeking more time to work with the administration to study the ramifications.
“If it is determined that the present intellectual property agreement exceeds federal requirements, then the [agreement] will be redrafted with faculty input and incorporated into university policies,” the resolution read in part.
Some, including Barry Gold, committee co-chairman, pointed to phrasing atop the agreement that says “submitting this form is a condition of employment and/or for being granted access to University of Pittsburgh resources.”
”The way it was presented, I think the gut reaction is to be nervous, that something funny is going on because of the threatening language and the short time frame,” Mr. Gold said.
Administrators said the intent was not to put a hammer down on employees, who learned of the required signatures in recent weeks. In fact, the agreements are required by the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies, said Carey Balaban, vice provost for faculty affairs. There was no immediate comment from NIH on Wednesday.
“There’s no change in policy. No change in your rights,” Mr. Balaban said. “No one said in any place, by the way, that faculty would be terminated.”
Pitt had no immediate reaction Wednesday to the Tenure and Academic Freedom resolution. But it cited language from NIH’s website saying agreements “should” include conveyance of rights. It cited seven other universities it says use similar agreement language, including Penn State, which calls an agreement it drafted a condition of employment. Pitt said the school already was requiring the signatures of new staff and some faculty.
Michael Spring, faculty assembly president, told members who met Tuesday that any transfer of intellectual property rights is “subject to the terms” of Pitt’s existing policies.
Among those at the faculty assembly meeting was Karen Norris, a Pitt immunology professor, part of the team that filed suit in January, claiming it should get sole intellectual property rights to research that could lead to a new lung disease vaccine.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, (412) 263-1977 and on Twitter @BschacknerPG.