Bruce Steele: Corporatization of universities decried

Bruce Steele: Corporatization of universities decried
University Times, Volume 34 Number 14, March 21, 2002

Worshipers would be outraged to enter a church and see a statue of Christ wearing Calvin Klein underwear, or a Nike swoosh among the calligraphy in a mosque. Yet, North America's secular sanctuaries -- its colleges and universities -- shamelessly sell advertising space and naming rights to the highest bidders, said the keynote speaker at Monday's University Senate plenary session, "The Corporatization of the University."

Early in his 45-minute address, David F. Noble, a social science professor at Ontario's York University, asked the audience in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room: "Is this a Pepsi university or a Coke university?"

"Pepsi!" answered many audience members, aware of Pitt's exclusive vending contract with Pepsico, Inc.

"Odd question, isn't it?" Noble said, dryly.

According to Noble, North American universities ("these unique and precious and precarious institutions," he called them) are being sold bit by bit to corporate donors and advertisers.

"But this is only the most apparent sign of academic commercialization," he said. "The real story is systemic. It lies beneath the surface" in the corporatization of academic administration, and the co-opting by corporations of university research and instruction.

Offering countering views during the Senate meeting were Robert Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management, and Pitt trustees chairperson William Dietrich.

Noble's books (most recently, "Digital Diploma Mills," a critique of distance education) decry what he views as an unholy merger between boardroom and classroom.

According to Noble, the upper managements of academic and corporate America have become "inextricably linked through a thickening web of interlocking directorates.

"Corporate executives have long dominated university boards," he said. "That's an old story. But now, top academic administrators routinely sit on Fortune 500 boards, sometimes earning more in fees and retainers associated with these directorships than they do from their academic positions.

"People think it's honorific" for academic leaders to serve on corporate boards, Noble said. "It's not. They are paid, and they are paid handsomely," not just in fees and retainers but also in the forms of life insurance and pensions. Noble pointedly referred to Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg's membership on the board of Mellon Financial Corp. -- one of several swipes he took at Nordenberg and Pitt in general.

Besides the conflicts of interest that interlocking corporate-academic board memberships encourage, they also generate "a corporate ethos and managerialist regime in academia which is indistinguishable from that of private industry," according to Noble.

"Most importantly, it encourages academic administrators to view higher education in much the same way as do their boardroom brethren: namely, as a site of employee training, commodity production and capital accumulation."

At Pitt, that view dates back at least a century, Noble said. He quoted the University's early-20th century engineering school dean, Frederick Bishop: "An educational institution resembles, in some respects, a manufacturing concern," Bishop wrote. "The goods produced must be of such design, finish, material, etc. as to satisfy its patrons. Likewise, the graduates of educational institutions must meet the requirements of the concerns which are to employ them."

"It used to be that engineers thought of themselves as revolutionaries who could change the world," Noble said, but administrators such as Bishop fostered a view of engineering schools as manufacturing enterprises producing students to the specifications of future employers.

Noble recalled reading years ago, while flying on Eastern Airlines, an editorial written for the airline's in-flight magazine by Pitt's then-chancellor, Wesley Posvar, who served on Eastern's board. According to Noble, Posvar's editorial acknowledged that some readers might ask why a university leader would be writing for a corporate publication. Posvar's answer: A university is, after all, just another business.

Pitt was "a pioneer in setting itself up as a research job shop for industry," said Noble, citing the University's participation in industry-sponsored research through the Mellon Institute.

"What I want to suggest is that in the last 20 years, this [university-corporate] relationship has intensified to a dangerous degree," Noble said.

As traditional manufacturing migrated to developing countries offering cheap labor, North American corporations "decided that their new ace for world economic domination was knowledge-based industry," Noble said. "The new oil was intellectual capital, and the wells for intellectual capital were here" at research universities such as Pitt.

A series of patent law amendments during the 1980s gave universities automatic ownership of patents on federally funded research. "Universities now became a conduit for a massive subsidy to private industry," Noble said. "By getting patents on publicly funded research, [universities] were in a position to license them to their boardroom brethren. Universities became, in effect, patent holding companies."

Increasingly, university re-search agendas are being set by proprietary arrangements with industrial partners, according to Noble.

"When a multinational comes to a university and lays down what looks like a lot money...that's lunch money to them," he said. "What they're doing is leveraging decades -- and in this case [at Pitt], centuries -- of public investment. They're not paying for the staff, the faculty, the library, the labs or the students. And they're getting it all, for spare change."

According to Noble, anyone who questions whether such a system leads to abuses need look no further than "two notorious disgraces here at the University of Pittsburgh" involving otolaryngology professor Erdem Cantekin and psychiatry professor Herbert Needleman.

In 1988, Pitt's administration found Cantekin guilty of misconduct for attempting to publish a report concluding that the antibiotic amoxicillin, commonly prescribed for middle ear infections in children, is ineffective and may lead to recurrences of infections. Cantekin's report contradicted the findings of his supervisor, whose research was funded partly by the company that produces amoxicillin. Cantekin's report later appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but not before Pitt's efforts to stifle its publication sparked a national controversy over suppression of dissenting research findings.

Needleman's research into the harmful effects of low-level lead exposure on children has been attacked by the lead industry since the 1950s. In 1992, two psychologists from outside Pitt (one of whom received hundreds of thousands of dollars in research funding from a lead industry organization) accused Needleman of scientific misconduct for allegedly manipulating data in several studies. The charges led to a Pitt hearing board inquiry that eventually cleared Needleman of misconduct, although the board suggested that Needleman deliberately misrepresented methods used to classify children whom his project studied. The National Academy of Sciences later re-analyzed Needleman's data and endorsed his findings.

"What did the University of Pittsburgh do" in response to the groundbreaking, public-spirited research by Cantekin and Needleman? Noble asked. "Celebrate this outbreak of the truth? No, they disciplined Cantekin, marginalized him, just like they did Needleman."

Much as corporations co-opted university research during the 1980s and 1990s, software and hardware companies now seek to turn instruction into a commodity, Noble maintained.

He likened computer-based "distance education" to the late 19th century boom in correspondence courses -- money-making enterprises (offered by such prestigious institutions as Columbia University and the University of Chicago) that likewise promised off-campus learners an alternative to stuffy, old-fashioned classrooms.

But Noble's argument that undergraduate education is being undermined by the spread of instructional software and distance education was disputed by Vice Provost Robert Pack, one of three panelists who spoke briefly after Noble's keynote speech.

Rather than undermining the central role of faculty, classroom technologies are being judiciously used by faculty here to enrich learning, argued Pack, who said he doesn't believe that Pitt is "in the midst of a fundamental revolution which either must be embraced or opposed in its totality."

Pack continued: "I do agree that the educational environment is changing significantly. The need for life-long learning, for example, will continue to grow. And life-long learning does not lend itself well to the traditional residential instructional patterns of the university.

"But that does not mean that either the practicing professional who has a continuing need to keep skills current or the traditional undergraduate student who learns best in a residential community has to be abandoned," Pack said.

Since fall 1999, some 1,100 Pitt faculty members have voluntarily received training in CourseWeb teaching software, said Pack. "We have not seen faculty using its capabilities in order to reduce formal class time, but instead using it to provide additional instructional opportunities. The CourseWeb component is not in its own right a course and is not intended to be one. It generally has little utility outside of the instructional environment which the faculty member constructs for it."

If anything, Pitt has slowed the pace at which it has adopted instructional technology "to ensure that the technology was stable and could be appropriately supported," Pack said.

Another panelist, Pitt women's studies program director Carol Stabile, wondered aloud whether the current focus on technology and "so-called distance education" isn't diverting attention away from undesirable labor practices including:

  • Downsizing of faculty and erosion of the tenure system, largely through attrition as professors retire or leave the University. "A recent report found that 50 percent of all university classes in the United States are being taught by adjunct faculty," Stabile said. Besides threatening academic freedom, the loss of tenured positions undermines instruction, Stabile suggested. Unlike adjunct and/or part-time faculty, she said, tenured professors know as much as a year in advance which courses they will be teaching, giving them adequate time to develop syllabi and course content.
  • Increased class sizes and instructional workloads, as universities cut faculty positions. Stabile said her department, communication, "is probably the worst example of this" with a 43-1 ratio between majors and full-time faculty.
  • Denial of health benefits for employees' same-sex partners. "Recently, Pitt stood up to a corporate ultimatum by preserving the Environmental Law Clinic," Stabile said, "and this should give us hope for the health of the institution. But the University needs to improve its treatment of its employees."

Stabile said Pitt's denial of same-sex health benefits has hindered recruiting in her department. Fellow panelist Richard Tobias, chairperson of the University Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee, said it's been difficult for his committee to get more than anecdotal evidence that Pitt's policy has affected recruiting University-wide. "But we do know that we've lost people whom we wanted to hire, and some people have left the University" as a result of Pitt's current policy, the English professor said.

Noble set an administration-baiting tone for the Senate plenary session when he invited a member of Pitt Students in Solidarity's Living Wage Committee to speak before his own keynote address.

Neil Bhaerman, a College of Arts and Sciences senior, called on Pitt's administration to adopt a comprehensive living wage policy for its employees, similar to those recently approved at Harvard.

Based on Pitt research, a minimum living wage for Allegheny County workers would be $10.62 an hour or $9.12 with benefits.

Yesterday, Pittsburgh City Council effectively killed the city's living wage requirement, which had been set to go into effect April 1, by voting 5-4 to delay implementation until Allegheny County approves a similar policy.

Bhaerman flourished a petition that, he said, 1,600 Pitt students had signed, calling for a living wage policy at Pitt. Bhaerman asked the chancellor to meet with his group before the end of the term.

"I'll take your petition," Nordenberg said.

"Will you meet with us?" Bhaerman asked.

"We'll see," the chancellor said, smiling.

"Should we take that as a yes?" Bhaerman asked.

"No, it's a 'We'll see,'" Nordenberg replied.

"So, you don't care about what the students think at the University?" Bhaerman asked, but the chancellor did not respond.

Noble, however, commented: "Just like at every other university in North America, [Pitt] students have a hard time getting a hearing. I would respectfully suggest that perhaps the chancellor would skip one of his board meetings at Mellon Bank and meet with the students."

But again, Nordenberg wasn't biting.

Later in the meeting, Board of Trustees Chairperson William Dietrich praised Nordenberg and his commitment to the University's academic mission. See text of Dietrich's remarks on page 3.