Raymond Pierotti: Corporate ethic is now undermining universities too

Raymond Pierotti: Corporate ethic is now undermining universities too
Adoption of money-centred business practices leaves academia open to same abuses
Nature, Vol 419, 17 October 2002, www.nature.com/nature

Raymond Pierotti, President, KU American Association of University Professors,Division of Biological Sciences
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA

Sir— Although I applaud the overall message of your Opinion article “After the gold-rush” (Nature 418, 111; 2002), I do not share your optimism that the scandals emerging in US businesses and the resultant distortion of scientific priorities have “not done much damage to the integrity of universities or scientific institutions”.

Many US universities have begun switching their administrative processes to follow a more corporate model, run on a ‘star’ system similar to that of companies such as Enron. In this system individuals are promoted, not because of experience or expertise, but on perception of their socalled intelligence and charisma. Large salaries can thus be given to mid-level administrators and a few faculty members sympathetic to ‘reforms’ and ‘streamlining’ (see www.workplace-gsc.com for a discussion of this issue).

One example of this practice is the use of new personnel policies based on business principles and maximizing revenue. Such policies (including attempts to end tenure) can effectively create deregulation within an institution. The resultant breakdown of due process leaves only the courts to resolve internal matters, a phenomenon which is also being seen in corporate scandals.

Another issue is that of shaky accounting, in which department chairs inflate the amount of grant money brought in by their faculty. They may list grants received by a group of faculty as if each member had received that amount, for example, or bring in badly paid temporary lecturers to replace tenured faculty members who have left.

Attempts to raise revenue have caused some university administrators to appoint to senior positions former executives from corporations embroiled in accusations and scandals. Some university presidents serve on the boards of directors of companies that may have competing financial interests or may be subject to investigation of their business practices. Under circumstances such as these, the association between university administrators and businesses is too close for comfort.

Practices and philosophies that have emerged from the economic boom and subsequent bust are only now beginning to harm the integrity of scientific institutions. Academic scandals are less well known because they do not (yet) involve the large amounts of money reported in corporate scandals. But the basic elements of serious scandals are likely to be as common in US universities as they are in US business.