Commentary: Memo To Japan: Set Your Academics Free

America has something Japan sorely needs: Greedy professors. As anyone involved in high-tech research will tell you, plenty of U.S. academics make bundles by moonlighting: They consult, start up companies, and sit on boards, even as they continue to teach and conduct research. These profit-driven profs are lionized for putting their intellectual capital to good use.

In Japan, by contrast, most of the prestigious universities, such as University of Tokyo, are state-run, and government rules ban professors from joining corporate boards and otherwise dirtying their hands in trade. Even though private schools allow faculty to do outside work, the idea of professors at elite state schools wheeling and dealing is too much for Japan's control-minded bureaucrats.

SNAIL-PACED. There are signs that the Japanese are rethinking these restrictions. A high-level task force has proposed removing the shackles that bind Japan's best-known universities and their faculties. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi wants to increase the flow of ideas between public universities, research institutes, and the private sector, encourage universities to patent the fruits of their research, and give academics control over their state-funded projects.

So are Japan's academics finally unbound? Don't count on it. As long as the powerful mandarins remain opposed, or uncommitted, change will be snail-paced. Government commissions can talk all they want about changing the rules, but the walls between academe and the private sector will take a long time to fall.

A recent case shows the difficulties. Iwao Nakatani, deputy chairman of the government's Economic Strategy Council, joined Sony Corp.'s board on June 29 after resigning from his full professorship at Tokyo's state-run Hitotsubashi University. Nakatani had applied earlier this year to the National Personnel Authority for permission to take up Sony's offer.

This was a perfect opportunity for the mandarins to show a change of heart. But they rejected his request, citing regulations that bar public servants from running their own companies or serving on the boards of profit-making firms. Prime Minister Obuchi and the Education Minister spoke up in Nakatani's defense, but to no avail. So Nakatani will teach part-time at Hitotsubashi and consult at several startups. "By quitting, I'm showing others that there is an exit," he says. Very valorous, but it would have been much better if he could have kept his full-time job.

Clearly, Japan is poorer if it cannot tap the ideas spun by these sharp academics. But there are other dangers to the status quo. The national universities--the breeding grounds for Japan's leaders--could start to lose their best and brightest teachers if the barriers remain. And teachers have an alternative, since the country's private universities give them a free hand.

One example: Haruo Shimada, a prominent economist and government adviser, turned down an invitation to head the new business-creation center at the University of Tokyo, the most famous of the national schools. Instead, he's keeping his professorship at private Keio University, which permits its full-time faculty to work off-campus. "I'm an outside board member at two companies, and I run my own research firm," says Shimada. "When I realized what I'd have to give up, I rejected the offer."

There are some encouraging signs. Over the past three years, 30 national universities have set up Venture Business Laboratories where professors work with students and company researchers on high-tech projects. But these are modest experiments. Japan's best universities need a bracing dose of the profit motive to help themselves and the economy. Trouble is, the bureaucrats stand in the way.

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