The Evolution and Impact of Joint Faculty Employment in University-Industry Collaborations
Jan. 30, 2024—With increasing demand for top talent in fields like cloud computing, data science, and AI, it’s tempting for companies to recruit prestigious university faculty from their academic posts with opportunities to do fulfilling research in industry. But students, universities, and companies all win when a joint employment approach is employed.
Joint employment—allowing faculty to split their time between their work in academia and industry—is one solution. The benefits are clear; experience in industry gives faculty a deeper understanding of sector-specific needs, offers access to colleagues, equipment, and data sets that can rapidly advance research, and provides fresh perspective that can translate to the classroom. Industry gains access to brilliant faculty and opportunities to work with their brightest students. Navigating the challenges of joint employment isn’t always easy, but the benefits—especially in talent-competitive sectors—make it worth the effort.
“Having half a faculty member is better than having zero,” says Ed Lazowska, professor and Bill & Melinda Gates chair emeritus, Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.
Joint employment models
Joint faculty employment programs can strengthen strategic partnerships between academia and industry. The best models establish clear guidelines for when and where faculty pursue academic versus company work. It’s not uncommon for universities to allow faculty to dedicate one day a week for consulting in industry, or to take sabbaticals to focus on industry projects and then return to their faculty position. Programs that support longer and deeper engagements must establish guidelines for potential conflicts of interest and conflict of commitment, ensuring that the faculty’s industry work remains beneficial for both organizations. Faculty must ensure they meet the expectations of both employers in terms of time allocation, commitment to students they advise, and confidentiality. Careful planning and institutional support can help mitigate these challenges and ensure joint employment opportunities run smoothly. The University of Washington pioneered its joint employment strategy, and other universities have followed suit. UIDP members can learn about the nuts and bolts in the publication Joint Faculty Employment Between Companies and Universities.
UIDP member University of Washington has a successful eight-year track record with its unique approach to joint faculty employment in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Realizing that Seattle was home to some of the most vibrant software companies in the nation, department leadership created a process allowing faculty to engage with the ecosystem without losing their positions. A formal “policy exception” was approved that goes beyond the university’s normal faculty leave policy, allowing Allen School faculty to engage more freely with industry. The first two years of faculty leave are governed by the university’s standard policy. After two years, faculty can apply to continue their leave with varying time limits and levels of commitment, subject to annual review and renewal. For example, leave time of up to 33% can be requested with no time limit; leave time of up to 50% can be requested for up to four years, after which the faculty member can either reduce their leave to 33%, or resign 50% of their faculty position and continue in a “dual-hatted” role indefinitely. There are several other options.
Flexibility ensures UW retains its top faculty, supported through careful processes and annual reviews to ensure that all parties keep commitments and interests aligned. Interestingly, intellectual property is not the primary concern; conflict of commitment is a more frequent question. The Allen School administration has set guardrails, including an additional faculty advisor for students working with jointly employed faculty within their industry commitment.
With participating faculty awareness of the potential pitfalls and effective administrative support, the policy exception has worked well. “There has been a learning process, but we’ve had no significant problems with any of these situations,” Lazowska says. “But having those processes in place has been really important. The university allowed the Allen School to implement the policy exception because we have a reputation for ensuring that student interests are protected.” Currently, 19 of the 75 tenure-track faculty at UW’s Allen School are taking part in joint employment with companies like Google Cloud, Meta, and NVIDIA, enhancing faculty retention while drawing a tighter connection between the school and the vibrant tech community in Seattle.
Why it matters
Joint employment allows faculty and industry to work closely together while ensuring students don’t lose access to professors at the cutting edge of their field of study. Universities retain their top researchers while opening new avenues to industry engagement. Understanding working, successful models for joint faculty employment can help organizations implement policies that encourage faculty to stay at the university without giving up R&D opportunities in industry.
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