The road to ethical partnerships: Lessons from university-industry collaborations
Gone are the days when the ivory tower of academia was revered. We now know universities should engage and partner with stakeholders in their ecosystem and beyond for better outcomes for their students, staff, and region. As a result, more and more we are seeing that universities and industry are looking for partners. However, navigating partnerships, and their varying goals, values and power dynamics can be a minefield. How can we make sure the partnerships we lead are ethical?
Through our consulting, research, and institutional program, UIIN has done considerable work on understanding and supporting university-industry partnerships, with a first-hand look into some of the key challenges faced. In this article, we look at dilemmas that can arise in partnerships and share our learnings to show what to keep in mind to make your partnerships mutually beneficial, while also being ethical.
What are universities looking for in a partner?
Having worked with 20 universities around the world on shaping their approach to partnerships and asked them what they look for when identifying a strategic partner, the top three criteria consistently highlighted by universities are as follows:
- The potential for societal impact
- The potential to improve the university’s quality of research (generally top-rated from academic perspectives)
- The alignment of strategic priorities and values (generally top-rated from leadership/professional staff perspectives)
How can value alignment be built into these criteria from the outset to form ethical partnerships? Let’s look at these in more detail using some examples.
1. Quality and ethical research partnerships
Universities are tasked with conducting research that is both of a high standard and that adheres to ethical principles (e.g., informed consent, do no harm, etc.). One such example of these principles being challenged is in university partnerships with the fossil fuel industry. Universities are facing increasing pressure from their students to divest from fossil fuel portfolios and the “Fossil Free” movement has seen growing success across university campuses at Trinity College Dublin and Princeton. In April 2023, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) followed suit and set new conditions for their partnerships, announcing they would only enter new research collaborations with companies in the fossil fuel sector that “demonstrably commit, in the short term, to the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement”. This novel Fossil Free Research (FFR) policy recognises the bias that can occur in climate research funded by the fossil fuel industry; the conflicting aims of the research and that of the funding partner can undermine the integrity of such research and greatly limit its impact. As the FFR movement gains momentum, it will hopefully become a globally accepted benchmark for impactful, ethical and objective research. These new conditions for industry-funded research set a precedence that universities going forward should examine the aims and agendas of their partners more closely.
2. Partnerships for societal impact
Universities are seeking partners whose collective efforts can generate lasting benefits for society, reflecting the university’s dedication to making a positive impact beyond academia. This involves assessing how the collaboration can contribute positively to broader social and environmental concerns. For example, the University of Oxford famously partnered with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2020 to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, a collaboration that played a crucial role in the global effort to combat the pandemic. One way to build ethics into the foundation of your partnerships is by orienting them around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their related 169 targets. SDG 17 even explicitly calls for a global partnership for sustainable development, stressing the importance of these alliances for greater academic and societal impact.
3. Alignment of ethics and values in partnerships
A partnership without a shared vision is like a ship without a compass, and alignment with the university’s mission and priorities are crucial factors in a successful collaboration. Universities should seek partners whose strategic goals and expertise complement their own, creating a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties.
When universities look for strategic partners, they consider their past collaborative experiences and the compatibility of cultures. This ensures mutual understanding and trust, resulting in a more resilient partnership.
But what if the shared vision diverges and a conflict of interest arises in a long-standing partnership, how should a university respond? The Purdue Pharma Sackler fallout serves as a stark example. Throughout 2019-22 several HEIs and cultural organisations around the world severed ties with the Sackler family after years of mounting pressure from the public following their company’s (Purdue) culpability in the opioid epidemic in the USA as makers of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. In 2019, Tufts University similarly terminated its partnership with the Sackler family which at that time had amounted to a USD15 million investment in the school’s science and medical programs, stating the partnership was inconsistent with their values. In response, Tufts established an endowment to support research on addiction and implemented several conflict-of-interest prevention policies, including a gifts policy committee and increased transparency in disclosing funding sources. This proactive approach ensures the university’s values and commitment to ethics remain intact.
What can you do?
Here are three key strategies to ensure you foster ethical partnerships at your institution:
- Know who you want to work with: be clear about what kind of partners you want to engage with to in turn make it easier for partners to work with you. Be open to working with SMEs, not-for-profits, and community organisations and ensure your institution is accessible to stakeholders of all kinds to initiate collaboration.
- Always be transparent: be clear about your goals and values, no hidden agendas. Furthermore, do your due diligence to understand the goals and values of your partner Before starting a new collaboration, get to know the organisation and their history. Both parties being transparent from the outset means avoiding conflicts of interest and maintaining the integrity of the collaboration.
- Monitor partnerships over the lifecycle: Ask yourself “Are our partners still meeting our goals, and are we achieving the desired outcomes?” Ongoing communication and actively tracking outcomes against mutually defining project milestones ensure that both parties are on the same page about priorities throughout.
In conclusion, ethical university-industry partnerships require careful consideration of cultural compatibility, shared vision, complementary expertise, and a commitment to ethical principles. The fallout from partnerships with Purdue Pharma and the pressure on fossil fuel research collaborations illustrate the importance of proactive ethical policies and conflict-of-interest prevention. As universities navigate the complexities of partnerships, it’s imperative to foster relationships built on trust, transparency and shared values for the benefit of all stakeholders involved.
 UIIN Strategic Partnerships. https://www.uiin.org/institutional-programs/strategic-partnerships/
 Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (2023, April 20). VU Amsterdam sets new course on behalf of energy transition. https://vu.nl/en/news/2023/vu-amsterdam-sets-new-course-on-behalf-of-energy-transition
 Cohen, I. (2023, May 10). A Dutch university just set a powerful precedent for climate research. The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/fossil-free-research-policy-vrije-universiteit-amsterdam-climate-change/
 Tufts Now (2019, December 5). Tufts University to Remove Sackler Name from Medical School Facilities and Programs. https://now.tufts.edu/2019/12/05/tufts-university-remove-sackler-name-medical-school-facilities-and-programs
Ready for more?
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy the short video How to turn transactional university-business relationships into strategic partnerships?, where we break down four simple actions to help you turn your university-business relationships into strategic partnerships. You can also learn how EPFL nurtures entrepreneurial mindsets, and discover the dynamic interplay between industry and education on or our podcast episode EPFL’s approach to forging valuable industry partnerships.
Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.