Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘It Felt Like a Betrayal’: Researchers Won a $2-Million Prize. The University Wants to Take It.:
October 24 should have been a great day for John M. Shea and Tan F. Wong, professors of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida.
The day before, after three years, their team — which includes three Ph.D. students and an undergraduate — won the $2-million grand prize in an artificial-intelligence competition, beating out more than 100 teams from around the world.
The message that day from the administration, however, was far from congratulatory.
“Please understand that if Shea and Wong convert university funds to personal funds,” stated the email from a university lawyer to a lawyer representing the university’s faculty union, “they will be subject to personnel action and possibly other more serious consequences.”
The battle for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contest was over. But the team had another fight, this one with its own university. Who gets to keep the prize money?
“We put our blood and sweat into this — working 14- or 16-hour days sometimes,” says David Greene, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering who works on artificial intelligence and communications for radio designs and is a member of the research team, GatorWings. “The university is basically setting a precedent that any cash prizes in any competition, whether they’re to students or faculty, will be owned by the university.”
The union representing the university’s faculty has filed two unfair-labor-practice complaints with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission, asserting that the university violated state law when setting its policy on prizes without bargaining over a matter that changed union members’ terms and conditions of employment.
The union wants the college to stop enforcing its policy, make the two professors on the team “whole … with compound interest,” and pay the union “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.” ...
“For as long as anybody knows at the University of Florida,” says Eric Lindstrom, a lawyer for the United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents faculty members and graduate assistants on the campus, “faculty have always been allowed to keep money that is awarded to them through their scholarly work.” ...
Many of the research universities contacted by The Chronicle stated that they don’t have a policy specifically governing external prize money for scholarly work. The University of Iowa, for example, said it would review a competition’s terms to see what university policies might apply.
None of the universities told The Chronicle that it would require scholars to turn over prize money. “Absent any unique circumstances,” wrote Dan Gilchrist, a spokesman for the University of Minnesota, the institution “would not claim monetary awards associated with a prize in recognition of faculty or other employee or student achievement.”