Bartering brains for bread

Can the institutions of higher learning escape the long arms of their corporate sponsors?


Mark Luce
January 7, 1999 10:14PM (UTC)

Nancy Shore could not believe what she saw. In the Quad Dining Hall at
Grinnell College stood a man in a Cap'n Crunch outfit, flanked by a PR
flack. The duo implored students to lobby the campus dining service to add
the sucrose-laden children's favorite to the college's breakfast offerings.

Shore, a sophomore, doesn't have a political beef with the
good Cap'n (even at the Iowa school chock-full of granola-crunching
lefties), but she has a philosophical problem with what she sees as
the corporate invasion of traditionally sacred spaces. Shore has started
her own zine, "FREK," to
address exploitative commercialism and her next target is the new corporate
playground, the college campus.

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"I came to Grinnell because I liked the small community. I wanted to
get away from the city while I was being intellectually formed," says
Shore. "Now I am being told that the goal is to make money and buy
things, not to learn. It's easier here to find an application for a
credit card than it is to find a recycling bin."

Shore is not alone in her dismay at encroaching commercialism on campus. Over the past decade, the strip-malling of student unions,
bookstores, athletic events and even classrooms has gradually begun to stir
controversy among students and faculty. Appearances of Cap'n Crunch pushers
notwithstanding, most of the corporatism operating on college campuses is
of a far deeper and less visible kind. Academic departments --
predominantly in engineering and the sciences -- have begun to negotiate
with specific companies to fund student research for access to patenting
rights. Last fall this trend reached a new low when Swiss biotechnology firm Novartis struck a groundbreaking deal with UC-Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. College deans and presidents have zealously pursued corporate partnerships -- from endowed chairs to underwritten research programs to building sponsorships -- often inventing new ways for corporations to sow and reap the benefits of higher education.

To be fair to the administrators, the courtship with corporate America
hasn't been a capricious dalliance so much as a marriage born of convenience and sometimes hardship. According to "The Condition of Education 1998," a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, federal and state outlays for higher education have dropped precipitously, while tuition has skyrocketed. For example, in 1977, state spending made up 52.4 percent of public university revenues; by 1995, that percentage dipped to 40.6. Concurrently, in 1977, tuition and fees made up 16.4 percent of public university funding; in 1995 tuition and fees accounted for 24 percent of public university funding.

With dwindling public outlays for higher education and the ever savvy student/consumer demanding more non-academic services, colleges and universities have often entered into business deals with the private sector to ensure they remain competitive with other institutions. If universities turn a cold shoulder to fiscal suitors, the quality and quantity of higher education could suffer drastically.

Ostensibly as a result of such fears, the Business-Higher Education Forum, an arm of the nonprofit American Council of Education, is promoting more face-time between businesses and universities. Judy Irwin, acting director of the forum, sees the new corporate interest in universities as a kind of survival instinct on the part of corporations as well. Many companies are dissatisfied with today's graduates, she maintains. If colleges aren't preparing students for the work force, the knowledge chasm that results could harm American businesses.

"Businesses need to have college graduates who are coming into their
employment of a certain caliber. They are not going to change the
curricula, they may make suggestions because businesses are increasingly
concerned that the college graduates they are getting are
technologically competent, but don't have good communications skills,
can't do analytical thinking, can't work in teams and don't have the
same work ethic as they have seen in prior years," Irwin says.

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Irwin's own eloquence notwithstanding, her emphasis on economic competitiveness, training and research and development partnerships is disheartening, and even antithetical to the notion that education is to better oneself and, in turn, the greater society. When those who claim to support students start recasting graduates as products, and when universities become the middleman whose job is to deliver the products in four years, the message sent is undeniable. Businesses are, in Irwin's words, "suggesting" that they want the "critical thinking" of liberal arts education -- but will they embrace critical thinking that becomes explicitly anti-corporate? Unfortunately, institutions of higher education seem to be increasingly willing to take suggestions from corporations, especially when it involves what universities used to call dollars, but now call "revenue enhancement."

For all the bridge-building doublespeak offered by Irwin, some companies involved say there are serious risks as they scurry to find niches in the academy (and the academy scurries to make room for them). Cybermark, a high-tech business in Tallahassee, Fla., develops smart cards, student identification cards that can also provide banking, long-distance, library, dining hall and, in the case of Florida State University, credit card services. Some schools pay for the smart cards' installation, which can range from $100,000 to $1 million, by contracting out portions of the card. The card seems promising, a fairly unobtrusive way of offering students convenient service, reducing theft and fraud and saving money.

"There is a risk if administrators don't take great care and
responsibility in these relationships," says Chris Corum, a
spokesman for Cybermark. "Where it can be successful is where the card
is looked at first as a student service and second from a financial
perspective. If it is just a business or financial decision, then probably
there are serious risks, because the institution risks selling its soul to
help a budget crisis."

Too late, says David Noble, a professor of history at York College in
Ontario. Higher education has already moved on to purely financial
considerations -- especially with the burgeoning of research and development deals that are changing the face of intellectual property. Since control, ownership and copyright of the fruits of academic labor have entered the marketplace, Noble argues that the losers are faculty, students and the ideals of disinterested inquiry. If that inquiry carries a corporate logo, the time-honored claim of university independence is compromised.

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Noble, who has written two scathing articles about the shotgun wedding of higher education and corporations (the first, "Digital Diploma Mill," was commissioned by the Nation, but spiked), says schools have left behind education in the constant chase for dollars. The commodification of university research is nothing new, helped by deep corporate pockets and the University-Small Business Patents Procedure Act (commonly known as the Dole-Bayh act), a 1980 law allowing universities to sell the
findings of government-sponsored research. But Nobel warns that university
instruction -- the very thing that makes college college -- is following
the same route.

Prepaid professorships -- known as endowed chairs -- are increasingly being funded by corporations that have a stake in the outcome of the research. At Oregon State, the Nor'Wester Brewing Company sponsors the "Nor'Wester Professorship in Fermentation Science" in the Department of Food Science and Technology. In the same vein, the Carlson Travel Tour and Hospitality Professorship is designated to research issues of interest to the travel industry at the University of Minnesota.

Sometimes corporations attempt to influence who holds endowed professorships. When United Parcel Service and the University of Washington were in negotiations in 1996 for a $1.5 million endowed chair in occupational orthopedics, UPS proposed Stanley J. Bigos, a researcher who studied back-injury claims against the Boeing Company in 1991. Bigos claims that it was not working conditions -- i.e., lifting heavy objects -- that had fueled those claims. For a company whose workers lift constantly, Bigos was UPS's dream candidate. But negotiations broke down when Washington said Bigos would have to be approved through normal channels. A year later, UPS dropped the proposal, saying it was no longer interested.

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"The commercialization of the university signals the end of the
university," Noble says. "The commercial ethos will obliterate the heart and
soul of the institution."

According to Lawrence Soley, a communications professor at Marquette and author of the 1996 "Leasing the Ivory Tower," a corporate mind-set in higher education could lead to a surrender of academic freedom, even higher tuition rates and an indirect subsidy for corporations by taxpayers. Soley also predicts an intellectual rich-poor gap in schools, with professors pulling in money teaching less and less, while instruction continues to be taken over by overworked and underpaid adjunct professors and graduate student teachers. Play these trends out to their logical conclusion, he says, and you are providing companies with state facilities to train future employees and the ability to determine what classes are worthy of teaching. Forget liberal arts, these will be technical schools.

"The indications are that universities are becoming more a part of the
commercial marketplace instead of a marketplace for ideas," says Soley.
The business logic of the partnerships is impeccable, he adds, but when
university chancellors and presidents start referring to themselves as
CEOs -- as they increasingly do -- the days of teachers and scholars are gone.

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Whether chancellors, presidents or CEOs, the leaders of institutions of
higher education, especially public ones, say their hands are tied by
recalcitrant state legislatures that tell schools to do more with less.
And if the schools want to survive, they have to go trolling for
dollars.

University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway recognized this and has
orchestrated a series of moves to combat budget shortfalls during his
three-plus years at Kansas: a $21 million, 10-year pact with Coca-Cola for
exclusive beverage rights, a $3 million pact with Nike to outfit the
school's athletic teams and the introduction of a smart card featuring
banking, long-distance, concession and bus services. Hemenway says such
deals are carefully negotiated and do not affect the academic integrity of
the school. Further, such decisions are the province of the
administration, not the faculty.

But Hemenway may be splitting hairs. On Christmas Eve the University of Kansas announced that its school of
business and Farmland Industries Inc., North America's largest farmer-owned
cooperative (its 1998 sales were $8.8 billion), established an intensive
management education program for the Kansas City corporation's middle
managers. Farmland paid for it, although the amount has not yet been
publicly disclosed. In a twist that illustrates Noble's concerns, for five
weeks over 10 months, the institute will use six KU professors and Farmland
managers to teach at the institute. Nevertheless,
Hemenway says, "We are exploring together new management techniques and
achieving a model university-corporate partnership." But no matter what one
may think of such a practice, it happens at business schools all the
time, and has for years, with little press coverage. It's called "executive
education," and most people outside of professional schools have never heard
of such a thing.

"The university is not an isolated ivory tower. It participates in the
market every day. It buys, sells, negotiates, it is a part of the
commercial activity that one would expect having to take place in a $700 million
or $800 million enterprise," says Hemenway, who also presided over the
creation of a nonprofit corporation to consolidate and streamline the
university's grant process and helped transform governance of the
school's hospital from state bureaucracy to an independent public
authority, thus freeing the hospital to compete in the managed care
industry.

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"I think it would be disingenuous of us to say we don't want anything to
do with corporations because we are this pristine, idyllic and pastoral
entity called the university. If you take that position to its logical
end, we would be like a bunch of monks in a monastery resisting
progress, because we wouldn't have any computers. If we are going to
have computing in the university, we are going to have to deal with
Microsoft. That is just a reality."

But this thinking is precisely what bothers dissenters like David
Katzman, professor of history and American studies at the University of
Kansas. It isn't a question of stopping the university from entering into
partnerships with companies such as Coke or Nike, he says, but rather to get away from a
top-down decision-making process.

"If the deal coincides with the university's mission and values and we
insulate ourselves from some of that impact, then it is very
appropriate. But when there are strings attached, when it changes our
priorities, then it becomes very dangerous to us."

And strings are often attached, although surreptitiously. When
Wisconsin signed an agreement with shoe manufacturer Reebok in 1996, hidden
deep in the contract was the following: "The university will not issue any
official statement that disparages Reebok [and] will promptly take all
reasonable steps to address any remark by any university employee, including
a coach, that disparages Reebok." Although Wisconsin administrators avoided talking about that specific part
of the contract, before the contract went to the Board of Regents for
approval, the rider became public. The public outcry over the school's attempt to subvert free speech forced Reebok to withdraw that section of the contract.

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Faculty protest at KU about the partnerships had been muted until September,
when Katzman gave a public speech decrying the moves as monopolistic,
noncollegial and robbing the university of its most cherished asset --
openness.

"We are being made into tools for commercial wars fought in the
marketplace," Katzman says. "And we are allowing them to fight those commercial wars here. Is that in our best interest or not? Let's hear about that, let's debate whether that should be the function of the university."

Whether that debate will be heard is another question. As colleges and universities continue to suckle at the corporate teat, they will increasingly rely on spreadsheets loaded with cash to demonstrate that the reliance on a corporate model is the only way to survive. And as chancellors and presidents become corporate yes-men and turn campuses into company towns, the notion of learning and thinking for oneself may become a quaint relic of days gone by.

Intelligent citizenry? Overrated. Student-teacher relationships? We prefer consumer-seller partnerships. The individual quest for knowledge? Been there. Conflict of scholarly (dis)interest? Our lawyers beg to differ.

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But don't we risk turning colleges into factories that build workers to company specifications? Don't ask so many questions. And while you're at it, enjoy your Cap'n Crunch.


Mark Luce

Mark Luce lives and writes in Lawrence, Kan.

MORE FROM Mark Luce

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