Selling Out: Are Universities Turning into Corporate Enclaves?

Georgia Tech accepts millions from McDonald’s in exchange for putting the Golden Arches logo on sports tickets, programs, and the floor of its coliseum. Since 1998, the University of California at Berkeley‘s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology has accepted $25 million from the Novartis Company in exchange for giving Novartis first refusal on patent opportunities arising from the research it has funded. Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Kmart, Yahoo!, Coca Cola, and LEGO all endow university professorships, often with strings attached (West Virginia University’s Kmart Professor of Marketing must spend 30 days each year training Kmart managers in exchange for his $2 million salary).

 

Every year, scandals erupt when schools put money ahead of principle: Coaches are fired for paying their players under the table and doctoring their grades, and lawsuits are filed when corporate-sponsored research goes awry. Medical schools rely increasingly on funding from pharmaceutical companies to keep them in the black, while more and more corporations are enjoying the free advertising and image boost they get when they sponsor university professorships.

 

Lucrative endorsements, multi-million dollar research contracts, for-profit educational programs, and costly self-promotional schemes have all been cited as examples of how colleges and universities are compromising their mission. Higher ed is selling out, the critics say, arguing that unless the incipient corporatization of the university is stopped, the moral fiber of higher education in the U.S. will be destroyed.

 

In Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, Harvard law professor and former Harvard president Derek Bok argues that worrying about whether the university is becoming a corporate enclave is a waste of time. Of course it has, he acknowledges. The commercialization of higher education is not a

terrible disaster looming on the near horizon, but an accomplished fact – or, in the language of business, a done deal.

 

According to Bok, higher education has long been commercialized. The first for-profit college athletics programs were launched more than a century ago. Concerns about the ethics of private research funding and patenting are more than half a century old. Thorstein Veblen, the great theorist of American materialism, was observing as early as 1918 that “the various universities are competitors for the traffic of merchantable instruction in much the same fashion as rival establishments in the retail trade compete for custom.” Those who argue that universities are newly in danger of yielding to economic temptation and pressure are mistaking the intensification of an age-old problem for the creation of a new one.

 

Bok’s book sets the record straight, explaining how, during the last 25 years, universities’ commercial investments have grown at a tremendous pace. College athletics and corporate-sponsored scientific research are the main areas of commercialization, but Bok notes that colleges and universities have also put a great deal of time, energy, and money into developing for-profit extension programs, distance learning initiatives, and executive MBA programs. The question, as Bok sees it, is not whether universities are becoming commercialized, or even whether such commercialization is harmful, but how universities can find ethical ways to manage their perennial need to increase revenue.

 

The dangers are clear enough: lowered standards, dumbed-down curricula, inhibited or even corrupted research, damage to the school’s reputation and educational mission. But so are the advantages. The more money an institution brings in, the more books it can buy, the more facilities it can build, the more faculty it can support, the more research it can fund, the more scholarships it can award, and so on.

 

Using the examples of athletics and scientific research, Bok extracts what he sees as the central issues raised by universities’ increasing, and increasingly unstoppable, commercialization. Higher education not only stands to benefit from corporate investment, but also has much to learn from business culture – about maximizing efficiency and allocating profits, about creating incentives to improve teaching and about adapting to change. But at the same time, universities must never be – or even seem to be – for sale. The educational mission must never be – or seem to be – compromised by the drive for profit or the urge to economize. Standards of admission, graduation, hiring, and promotion must be maintained. Clear guidelines for what kinds of business ventures are and are not acceptable must be drawn up. Trustees, presidents, administrators, faculty, coaches, and even students must all understand what is at stake and must all know where the line is between enough and too much. Bok offers detailed suggestions for how colleges and universities can protect the integrity of research, limit the corrupting potential of intercollegiate athletics, preserve educational values, set collective standards and compel one another to observe them.

 

Bok’s book has been well received. But the praise tells us less about the solidity of Bok’s study than it does about the skill with which he has made a deeply incomplete and porous analysis seem to be much more solid than it is.

 

In focusing almost exclusively on athletics and corporate-funded research, Bok ignores some of the major ways universities might be said to be “selling out.” There is no mention anywhere in the book of the fact that across the country, tuition is skyrocketing even as classes are closing, departments are downsizing, and resources are becoming ever more scarce. There is no mention anywhere in the book of the fact that on many campuses, upwards of half of all undergraduate teaching is now done not by fulltime faculty but by undertrained, underpaid graduate students and by a poorly paid and often uninsured corps of part-time, non-tenurable faculty (more than 40% of the professoriate works part-time; 70% of part-timers make less than $3,000 a course). There is no recognition that the campus labor movement that has so many university administrators up in arms – and that loudly and regularly accuses universities of sacrificing its educational mission to economic interests – is a predictable and logical outgrowth of universities’ attempts to cut costs by cutting academic corners.

 

Nor does Bok acknowledge that even as universities are cutting academic corners to save money, they are coming up with massive amounts of money to finance cosmetic improvements to their campuses. Lots of schools are spending millions of dollars on amenities that could and should be spent on education. An October 2003 New York Times article reports that the University of Houston just opened a $53 million “wellness” center, while Ohio State University is spending $140 million on a 657,000-square-foot sports complex replete with climbing wall, batting cages, and massage facilities. Washington State boasts the largest jacuzzi on the West Coast. Penn State University‘s student center features ballrooms, art galleries, movie theaters, and an aquarium housing a live coral reef.

 

Improved recruitment and enhanced reputation are the objects of such projects. More and more colleges are competing for students not by emphasizing their commitment to academics, but by turning their campuses into luxury resorts. Along the way, they not only drive up tuition, but also suggest that it is more important to them to succeed at the business of education than it is to provide one.

 

The lessons learned from athletics and research – not to yield to temptation and not to let greed corrupt the integrity of inquiry – are not readily transferable to the situations described above, which are less about the self-compromises of profit-seeking than about the misuse of funds, the absence of funds, or, in some cases, the absence of a will to fund. Bok’s premise is that we can generalize from the cases of athletics and research, and perhaps that’s true. But the book would have been far more forceful if it had not asked its readers to fill in so many unacknowledged blanks.

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