Where are your tuition dollars going? Are universities wisely managing these funds?
Are corporate donors and other commercial forces changing your universities’
priorities? Are student’s interests truly being served?
Here are 10 things that you—the students—might be interested
1. Taxpayer Support For Higher Education Has Declined, Forcing Undergraduate
Students And Their Families To Pay More For Higher Education Than Ever Before.
Since 1980, tuition and fees at public colleges have increased at three times
the rate of inflation, rising over 50 percent in real terms over the past decade
alone. At private colleges, tuition and fees rose by a corresponding 36 percent
over the same decade. To pay for these price increases, more and more students
have been forced to take out loans. Many slip into debt. The average cumulative
debt burden for a graduating senior rose from $9,800 in the early 1990s to $18,000
in early 2000 (not including interest).
2. Students Are the Most Important “Assets” That Universities
Produce, Yet Teaching is Rapidly Being Downsized
Universities have embraced a “cost-savings model” imported straight
from the commercial sector. The idea is simple. Higher education is a labor-intensive
industry. Teaching is, far and away, the most expensive line item in the university’s
budget. The solution? Eliminate full-time teaching positions and replace them
with part-time graduate students and adjuncts that are paid meager salaries
and few (if any) benefits. Today, roughly 50 percent of the faculty in higher
education work on a part-time, contingency basis. Sixty percent of new faculty
hires are “off the tenure track”—meaning they are not eligible
for tenure, and usually lack any job security.
3. Big Business Comes to the Academy:
At the same time teaching is being downsized, universities are courting money
from private industry and pouring resources into commercial operations far removed
from the universities’ primary teaching and academic-research missions.
Universities now run their own industrial parks, venture capital funds, and
industry-university cooperative research centers. They also operate expensive
patenting and licensing offices to market their research to private companies
in exchange for royalty revenues. In 2003, U.S. and Canadian universities pulled
in an impressive $1 billion from these commercial licenses on taxpayer-funded
research, but nearly all of the profits went to less than two dozen schools.
The majority of the nation’s colleges and universities barely
break even—or lose money—off of all this heightened commercial activity.
4. Industry Funding is Growing
Since 1980, industry funding of academic research has expanded 8 percent annually,
rising to $2 billion in 2001 (the most recent year for which statistics are
5. Selling Off the University….Piece by Piece.
Buildings are now emblazoned with corporate names, faculty hold corporate-endowed
professorships, and campus bookstores are run by Barnes and Noble. U.C. Berkeley
anointed its former dean the “BankAmerica Dean of the Hass School
of Business.” At Wayne State University, J. Patrick Kelley served
for eleven years as the Kmart Chair of Marketing. South Carolina
State University just announced that the dean of its College of Sciences, Mathematics,
and Engineering will have his salary paid for by his former private-sector
employer for two years. The dean’s former employer, a nuclear-engineering
firm based in South Carolina, will also have unprecedented influence over the
6. Conflicts of Interest Abound
The university has long served as a refuge for independent thought—a place
dedicated to disinterested research, liberal education, and the advancement of
knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Traditionally, universities were not governed
by market forces. They were autonomous institutions that strove to remain free
of outside influence, whether political, religious, or commercial. Today, universities
are engaging in explicitly commercial activities that were unheard of only a generation
ago, which seriously compromise their academic autonomy.
A critical change came about after Congress, in 1980, gave universities automatic
intellectual property rights to all taxpayer financed research. Instead of giving
their research away for free, as they used to do, universities now sought to
patent and license their research to private industry in exchange for profits.
They also encouraged professors to go into business themselves. As a result,
universities and their professors now have extensive financial interests (patents,
equity) in their own campus-based research. These professors now also frequently
sit on corporate advisory boards, speaker’s bureaus and serve as consults
for the companies funding their research.
Financial entanglements like these have proliferated to such a degree that
journal editors complain it has become increasingly difficult to find an academic
investigator to write a review of a new medical treatment who does not have
a financial interest in the products they want to have examined.
7. Skewing The Research Agenda
In 2003, researchers at Yale University surveyed over 1,100 clinical studies
and concluded that when research is funded by industry it is “significantly
more likely to reach conclusions that [are] favorable to the sponsor”
than research not funded by industry. At numerous schools, corporations have
tried to muzzle professors who tried to publish research on public health threats
that negatively impacted on the sponsors’ bottom line. The corporation,
Syngenta, recently tried to prevent a biologist at UC Berkeley from publishing
research showing that atrazine, a popular weed-killer, interfered with the sexual
development of frogs, causing them to develop both female and male sex organs.
In the past, universities conducted their research at arms length from
their industry sponsors. Today, they frequently sign contracts that
allow companies to delay publication, to review and edit manuscripts prior to
publication, and to control the raw data from their professors’ research.
8. Who Benefits And Who Loses?
Internships and other exchanges with private companies can be highly beneficial
for students. Often they can result in employment opportunities for students
after they graduate. But when universities become commercially driven, students—and
the broader society—lose out. Professors who try to walk the line between
academia and business often wind up neglecting the educational needs of their
students. Similarly, when universities become profit-driven, their commercial
interests frequently conflict with the public interest.
In one incredible case, the University of South Florida actually pressed criminal
charges against Peter Taborsky, a student working on his master’s thesis,
after he discovered a commercially-promising way to remove ammonia from wastewater.
Taborsky was convicted of stealing university property and wasforced to do time
at a maximum security prison before then Governor Lawton Chiles stepped in to
pardon him. Later the U.S. patent office determined that the student was, in
fact, the sole inventor of his discovery.
9. Money Trumps Academics
Professors used to be rewarded based on the intellectual rigor and quality of
the research they published—not the amount of money they could bring in.
Little by little, however, money has assumed far greater importance in the university’s
affairs. Salary levels are linked to how much revenue a faculty member can bring
in. Disciplines that make money, study money, or attract money are lavished
with institutional resources, space, and graduate students. Meanwhile, the humanities,
physics, and other disciplines that have always had trouble financing themselves
find themselves starved for resources and left to languish.
10. The Threat to U.S. Innovation:
Corporate control over the academic research culture also poses a threat to
the U.S. innovation system. When academic research is profit driven there is
a danger that basic, curiosity driven research will be crowded out by research
that has more immediate commercial use. Growing numbers of economist, legal
scholars, and business leaders worry that, instead of broadly disseminating
their research inventions, universities have become so focused on extracting
short-term profits that they stifling broad use of taxpayer-financed research.
When a professor at the University of Utah discovered an important human gene
responsible for hereditary breast cancer, for example, the university didn’t
make it broadly available to the scientific community. It licensed the gene
exclusively to the professor’s own start up company, Myriad Genetics.
Afterwards, the company blocked other academic scientists from being able to
use the gene in their own breast cancer research and diagnostic testing, generating
enormous controversy worldwide.
Jennifer Washburn is the author of University
Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, which hit the stands
on February 15th.