Some Revolutions Felt, Not Heard

Sometimes revolutions are neither heard nor seen; they are only felt. Looking at the placid processions during the graduation ceremonies of the nation’s largest universities in recent days, there is no hint of the convulsive changes going on at these institutions. But the American people will feel the consequences of the increasing corporate control over what kind of university knowledge is and is not produced, disclosed and applied.
Many Americans have already felt the tragic results. They are the victims of unsafe cars who never received the benefits of what engineering schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) could have produced independently by way of research, testing and innovations for better handling and crashworthy cars. But General Motors and other influential automotive companies supportive of the M.I.T.s would not have looked kindly on such provocative activities. Other Americans harmed by carcinogenic pesticides have borne the consequences of supine agricultural schools doing research for the profits of chemical company giants instead of finding non-environmentally toxic ways to control pests.

There are in our country three major institutional centers for the acquisition and application of knowledge — governments, corporations and universities (colleges). Governments are supposed to reflect what voters and legislators want. Corporations are supposed to reflect what will make money. And universities are supposed to produce what the conscience and freedom of the scholarly mind critiques and creates. When governments and corporations close their doors in corruption, suppression or worse, it is essential that the faculty, students and leaders of the academic world remain capable and free to enlighten, challenge and propose superior ways. Over twenty years ago, scientists did just that on controversial nuclear weapons systems knowing they were reasonably secure in their academic base from retaliation.

Now, what the American Civil Liberties Union calls “the university’s teaching, research, and public service mission,” is being compromised by a mass of deals with major corporations and the dual roles of professors who moonlight as business consultants or executives of their own companies. Who, for example, has the patent rights and royalties from discoveries? What rights do graduate students and professors have to publish their research when the jointly-ventured company considers the findings to be “trade secrets?” How is the curriculum or the choice of research subjects shaped by corporate contracts?

Consider a sample of these university-corporate arrangements. For decades, Harvard’s patent policy required dedicating any health-related discoveries to the public. But in 1974 the university, in return for $23 million from Monsanto, agreed to assign to the company the rights to a particular cancer-blocking agent if it was developed by the funded program. A similar deal, involving $70 million from a large West German drug company, was signed a few years later with a Harvard-affiliated hospital and “the university’s department of molecular biology.

Exxon entered into an $8 million combustion project with M.I.T. in return for obtaining irrevocable, royalty-free licenses to any ensuing inventions. Sixteen major corporations have invested in Stanford’s Center for Integrated Systems. Westinghouse and Carnegie-Mellon are entwined on robotics research, as is Rensselaer Polytechnic on automation with IBM, GE, Lockheed and Bethlehem Steel. About 300 companies are pouring millions of dollars into universities for bioengineering work.

University presidents say such arrangements are needed to make up for the loss of federal research support and to permit their faculty and students to be current with modern equipment. To expressed fears that dissent will be stifled, that secrecy will increase, that taxpayers’ investments in universities are being used to further corporate profits, and that higher education is being turned into vocational trade schools as defined by business, these academic leaders say they are making progress to diminish these problems.

Author Irwin Stark disagrees. He points to recent reports by academic associations which “clearly indicate…that a fundamental transformation of higher education is radically altering the conduct of the sciences, affecting the status of other disciplines, threatening academic freedom and endangering the autonomy of the university.” Who will universities serve? Society or the multinational corporations? Often these objectives are quite different, he observes.

There is one research inquiry that no company has been willing to fund at any university; namely, what happens to the fullness and freedom of higher education when it becomes indentured to corporate missions of sales and profits? Any takers for that project, Fortune 500?

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