Kristin Jensen: Degrees of Influence: The corporatization of higher education

Kristin Jensen: Degrees of Influence: The corporatization of higher education
Sojourners Magazine, January-February 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 12-13)

Large corporations hold more power than ever in our society, and the influence that they exert is obvious in many arenas: over the economy, our political system and what legislation is passed, over the media and what ideas and opinions are conveyed. What is less immediately obvious is the increasing influence that large corporations have on the educational system in the United States, especially on higher education. While some notice has been paid to the reach of corporations into public K-12 schools with ventures such as Channel One, less attention has been given to the increasing influence of corporations on universities, both public and private, throughout the country.

The unprecedented influence of corporations, and corporate values, on universities has led to a number of disturbing trends that challenge the integrity of higher education in the United States. Corporations are more visible and more powerful than ever on college campuses. The governing boards of universities, as well as their trustees and regents, are increasingly the executives of large corporations. Universities are contracting out for more and more of their basic services, from cafeterias run by fast food chains and exclusive beverage contracts with Coca-Cola or Pepsi to university bookstores run by large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble. Such arrangements effectively shut out smaller, local companies that benefit the local economy instead of corporate interests.

Increasingly, university education is becoming a corporate training ground as schools embrace not only the ideals of corporations but their practices as well. The corporatization of higher education has meant that decisions concerning academic planning and employment are determined by financial considerations. Like corporations, universities today evaluate particular departments and programs on their ability to pay for themselves and bring the university money. Many departments that do not bring in sufficient funds, especially in the liberal arts, are threatened with termination.

Corporations have also assumed a more direct and dangerous influence on higher education. Universities today are for-profit institutions, and in an era of scaled-back federal funding, corporations and their foundations are providing much of the needed money-with a heavy price attached. The influence of corporate money on many colleges has meant that corporations, instead of the universities themselves, frequently determine what receives funding. For example, instead of the sociology department of a university deciding that they want an endowed chair and then soliciting funds for it, a corporation provides funding for a chair in an area in which it wants research done. As Lawrence Soley, author of Leasing the Ivory Tower, documents, this leads to the Federal Express Chair of Excellence in Information Technology at the University of Memphis or the Reliance Corporation Professor of Free Enterprise at the University of Pennsylvania. In effect, this means that the corporation, instead of the university, determines which topics are looked at and which aren't.

Many university departments no longer exist to educate students but to do research and development for corporations. Corporate foundations give money to programs, courses, college newspapers, and student groups that further their ideology and opinions. Corporations also frequently donate money on the condition that it be used for a "research center" of their design, which provides them with valuable public relations outside of corporate headquarters. Soley notes that the professor who holds the Federal Express Chair at the University of Memphis also runs the Federal Express Center for Cycle Time Research, a research center devoted to studying overnight air delivery.

Large corporations will continue to seek influence in universities because they are a cheap source of labor for research. It costs the corporations less to conduct their research in university labs, which are built and funded with tuition and money from taxes, than to outfit and build comparable corporate labs. The real cost of such practices is high. Graduate students and research assistants are paid far less than their counterparts in the private sector and the costs of such research are absorbed by students in the form of higher tuition and by taxpayers. Additionally, some contracts that universities sign with corporations stipulate under what conditions (if at all) the research conducted can be made public.

For example, Soley documents a case at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) in which clinical pharmacist Betty Dong conducted research on Synthroid, a drug manufactured by the Boots Company, a British pharmaceutical corporation, which also paid for the research under a contract with UCSF. When the research failed to establish Synthroid's superiority, Boots blocked Dong's publishing her work and criticized her study publicly. Under the contract the company had the right to censor the study, and Dong, unable to make the study public, could not defend her work. This incident is an increasingly commonplace example of a corporation exerting undue influence over the research agenda of a university.

At the heart of the dialogue about growing corporate influence are fundamental questions concerning the aim of education. For what purpose do we as a society educate? Do we educate to develop citizens who are informed, active, and critical? To introduce as many people as possible to the joys of learning, to intellectual pursuits and the arts? Or is the sole purpose of a degree to get a job? What is the value that we as a society place on education?

How we as a society address the influx of corporate values and economic practices in our universities will not only determine the future of higher education in the next century but the quality and character of our communities as well.