Higher education for sale

One of the most interesting revelations of Charles Ferguson’s movie Inside Job was his exposure of the ways in which academic economists contributed to the economic meltdown. Ferguson examines how Ivy League business schools neglected to challenge dangerous trends. Glenn Hubbard, Dean of Columbia University Business School (pictured above), was one of the academics who benefited from aiding and abetting Wall Street in its reckless activities. He also contributed to, and benefited from, the deregulation of the financial industry.

We are used to politicians being unduly swayed by corporate campaign contributions and the promise of high paying lobbying jobs after they leave office. We have watched them over the past decades shape legislation to benefit corporate and banking interests rather than the average American. But who knew that academics are cashing in as well, giving their corporate clients the biased research and reports they wanted, while their institutions, including prestigious ones like Harvard and Columbia University, look the other way.

American universities used to be the envy of the world, but there are signs that corporate money is having a growing, and pernicious influence on academia, threatening the values that once made them great institutions. The once admired liberal arts education is no longer the focus of the new revenue-centered university, and the results are fast becoming socially disastrous. The concept of the independent academic professor engaged in the pursuit of “truth’” is becoming as quaint as the idea of “Mr. Smith” going to Washington and actually making a difference. Likewise, the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education seems old fashioned and naive.

A slew of books in recent years have commented on this troubling trend of the encroachment of corporate money and influence on the academic world.

  • “Secretive connections between private industry and the academy have begun to undermine the foundation of public trust on which all universities depend,” according to Jennifer Washburn, author ofUniversity, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. In her book she cites examples of academic research that was suppressed or altered in support of greater corporate profits.
  • In his book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, Derek Bok, an ex-president of Harvard University, focuses on medical schools and university teaching hospitals that are entrusted with essential public responsibilities but are now endangered by commercial incentives. He demonstrates the risks inherent in the growing liaison between medical schools and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
  • Frank Donoghue, in his book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, laments that the number of students attending American universities has surged in recent decades, but the number of humanities professors has dwindled. He sees a troubling trend in higher education where classes are focused on corporate needs and administrators think more like business executives, than liberal-arts scholars.
  • In her book Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, Gaye Tuchman offers a cogent analysis of the corporatizing forces reshaping U.S. universities by highlighting a small state institution that tries to enter the big leagues using a corporate managerial style.
  • In their book Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education, Sheila Slaughter and Gary contend that as colleges and universities become more entrepreneurial, they focus more and more on knowledge as a commodity to be used in profit-oriented activities, rather than knowledge as a public good.
  • Finally, Christopher Newfield, in his book Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-year Assault on the Middle Class,connects the conservative culture war with the economic war on the middle class that has seen their wages diminished and their political influence weakened. Unregulated market forces have chipped away at the benefits of the typical graduate. The democratizing mission of the public university and its ideal of egalitarianism and vision of a knowledge society, have been deeply undermined by conservative influences.

These are but a few of the growing chorus of voices alarmed at the disturbing cooptation of our institutions of higher education by moneyed interests, be they corporations or foundations with an agenda. Like the corporate takeover of our political institutions, this is a dangerous development that is threatening our democracy and quality of life.

So what can we do? If nothing else, monitor developments at your local and state funded institutions of higher education. When changes happen at your state university or your community college, such as the introduction of corporate funded curriculum, or the dropping of humanities classes, or the raising of tuition beyond what working and middle class families can afford, or that professors are selling their research to the highest bidder or aiding and abetting the destructive activities of corporations, write your congressman or senator or, better yet, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Education is a public good that must be protected and professors must be held to a higher standard than they are currently keeping.