Commercializing Higher Learning

The waves of commercialism sweeping over the nation’s institutions of higher learning are becoming larger and more frequent. Many years ago, Universities and colleges were wary of business turning their institutions into partners, joint ventures and other deals. Now, more and more of these academies are actively bidding for business partnerships and encouraging their professors to moonlight as consultants.

On their part, companies see all that expertise and research on campus as representing sweet deals of profits. Biotechnology firms and computer firms have many intricate arrangements with university faculties. In turn, universities are competing against one another to line up their labs and their brainpower with one or more of the large multinationals that seek a long-term arrangement.

It is not just the campus physical sciences that are tempting both American, and one might add, foreign companies from Japan, England and other nations. Professors of economics, accounting, business administration, marketing and psychology are in demand as well and they often bring their graduate students along as cheap labor.

Commercialism conflicts with adverse impacts on the University that are often obscured by the blizzard of immediate money from these deals. Trade secrets, gag rules, subordination of the profit motive to the goals of teaching undermine the principles of higher education that place students and freedom of expression first.

There are other overlaps that trouble groups such as the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest (1806 T Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009). University trustees and boards of directors come with a heavy corporate presence. Most of the major sectors of industry and commerce have executives on University Boards. At one time, to cite another pattern, the President of New York University was also on the Board of the area’s largest electric company — Con Ed. Where was the primary allegiance of that gentleman on electric rate increases?

It is revealing of the corrosion of open academic values that many of these contracts between companies and colleges–universities are secret and, even if taxpayers are supporting these institutions, they are still held confidential.

Corporate influence here is not just “academic.” For decades, the big auto companies made sure that university research on auto safety and pollution control was neither funded nor encouraged. At places like MIT in Cambridge, the heavy GM presence actively discouraged research and teaching course treatment of this engineering subject preferring instead to hire MIT graduates and “teach them the industry way” as the GM Engineering Journal once phrased it.

Auto safety technology stagnated until the Nineteen Sixties when Congressional hearings and legislation shook matters up.

Now another commercial triangle is being pressed by the giant hog farms in Iowa and Iowa State University (ISU). Before the state legislature comes ISU seeking $10 million taxpayer dollars to study ways to control the overwhelming smell of hogs that pervade whole counties in that state. Displacing small family hog farms, these corporate giants construct 10,000 sow units with huge lagoons, that are piling up manure wastes, polluting water and fouling the air, to their neighbors’ growing outrage.

ISU sponsored the International Livestock Odor Conference last year to set the stage for an elaborate campus research enterprise that serves as corporate welfare to companies who should be required by law to stop being such an environmental nuisance, while they fund their own research to correct their damage.

Attorney and ISU graduate, Michael Stumo, who grew up on his parents’ small pig farm in Iowa, wrote recently: “As a land grant institution, Iowa State University was founded to benefit us all. It should not be converted into a conduit for $10 million in welfare for a handful of factory hog farms that force families to shift their source of subsistence from hog sales to food stamps. If the factory farms are so efficient, let them fend for themselves.”

University presidents, for the most part, seem caught in a frenzy of concessions to commercialism, because they say budgets are tight. So they sign exclusive marketing contracts with fast food and soft drink companies on campus, sell the names of their academic buildings to large donors, and receive revenue for further commercializing their sports teams and arenas.

Something very precious is being lost — the independence and scholarly integrity of these institutions and, the focus on teaching and spending time with students.

The absence of commercial imperatives that distort what is researched on campus and what taxpayers and tuition-payors receive from the Universities and colleges should be the topic of a long overdue debate throughout higher education.

After all, these are Universities, not commercial trade schools serving corporations. Knowledgeably researching, speaking out and writing by the residents of higher education should not be eroded or suppressed by the tyranny of the bottom line.

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