Ellen Schrecker: Selling Out?

Ellen Schrecker: Selling Out?
Academe, September-October 2001

In November 1998 the University of California agreed to a five-year $25 million deal between the Swiss biotechnology giant Novartis (now Syngenta) and Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. For many observers at Berkeley and elsewhere, the size of the arrangement and its extension to an entire department, as well as the secrecy that initially surrounded it, pointed ominously toward the corporate takeover of the American university. Three years into the contract, the long-term consequences of the Novartis agreement are still unclear, but its significance is obvious: it highlights the academic community's growing involvement with the market.

We know where that involvement comes from. Shrinking public support for higher education has forced the university to seek other sources of income. As long as a corporate offer doesn't contain unacceptable strings, would any institution turn down a well-endowed laboratory or a new interdisciplinary center? Or would any scientist refuse to license her latest discovery to a drug company for millions of dollars? It would be unrealistic to expect the academy and its members to opt out of the material world. Moreover, as Jennifer Croissant notes, corporate connections convey a kind of legitimacy and relevance (remember that word from the sixties?) that may be essential in today's business-oriented society.

But more is at stake than money; we need to check out the bargains we make. In order to move beyond generic jeremiads about corporations corrupting the ivory tower, Academe asked the University of Arizona's Sheila Slaughter, who has long studied the subject, to help us assess what's going on. Neither Slaughter nor her colleagues have any final answers; the relationships between universities and the private sector are still too fluid for that. Even so, examining those relationships may help us frame the questions that must be asked.

The commodification of intellectual property-which is, after all, what academic corporatization entails-affects everyone on campus. Professors, Slaughter notes, are as eager as anyone else to get a piece of the action and often bargain as aggressively as any other entrepreneur in their dealings with academe. Because universities usually profit from the work of faculty members who produce marketable research, most administrators acquiesce in, if not encourage, such behavior. And some academic leaders, as Nancy Goldschmidt and James Finkelstein reveal, have even closer ties to corporations: they serve on their boards.

As the academy plunges more deeply into the business world, potential problems emerge. Will universities tolerate faculty members who criticize corporate benefactors? Will scientists skew their research toward profit-making projects? What about shared governance? Will closer ties to the private sector encourage academic administrators to emulate the top-down managerial style of their business partners? And, finally, as both Gary Rhoades and David Noble fear, will corporatization undermine the independent status of the academic profession?

Equally alarming is the entrepreneurial academy's disregard for the common good. Universities are still public institutions; turning them into profit centers could further erode the public's already tenuous support for higher education. At the same time, as Julia Porter Liebeskind points out, the private sector's secrecy and proprietary attitude toward research threatens the future of science itself. Nothing less than what Liebeskind and others call our "intellectual commons" may be at risk.

Perhaps this scenario is too grim. Perhaps there are benefits to commercialization. Perhaps it is possible to mitigate its disadvantages. To do so, however, will require hard thinking, collective action, and a willingness to forgo short-term gains. But if we want to retain an open university within an open society, we cannot shirk the job.