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University Inc.—The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education

  • When
  • April 27, 2005
    4:30–10:00 a.m. (EDT)
  • Where
  • Open Society Foundations–New York
    224 West 57th Street
    New York, NY 10019
    United States of America

OSI hosted a forum to mark the publication of University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books), by journalist and former OSI Individual Project fellow Jennifer Washburn.

During the past two decades, commercial forces have transformed virtually every aspect of academic life. Corporate funding of universities is growing and the money comes with strings attached. In return for corporate largesse, universities are acting more and more like for-profit patent factories, while professors are behaving more like businessmen. Secrecy is replacing the free flow of basic knowledge, university funds are shifting from the humanities to more commercially lucrative science labs, and the skill of teaching is valued less and less. The consequences of the new academic-industrial complex are wide-ranging and disturbing.

In University Inc., Washburn reveals how conflicts of interest, involving individual scientists and often entire universities, have led to compromised research and a loss of scholarly independence. This toxic mix of science and profit in areas ranging from medicine to the environment jeopardizes the well-being of millions who rely on the historic impartiality of academic research. It is eroding academic freedom and weakening the university s capacity to perform pathbreaking research and innovation.

In addition to Jennifer Washburn, the panel featured:

  • Arjun Appadurai, provost of the New School University;
  • Leon Botstein, president of Bard College;
  • Gara LaMarche, vice president and director of U.S. Programs at OSI (moderator).


“The American public still largely believes that universities are independent, nonprofit institutions,” Jennifer Washburn said. However parents, students, and citizens should all be “gravely concerned” about growing financial ties between universities and corporations.

The problem is not simply corporate funding of academic research, she said; universities themselves are beginning to look and act like for-profit companies. Today universities are engaging in patenting and licensing, and other unprecedented commercial activities that often conflict with universities’ core educational mission, according to Washburn.

She cited several concerns regarding academic commercialism, among them the problem of excessive industry influence over the research process. For example, when UC Berkeley researcher Tyrone Hayes sought to publish his work demonstrating that a common herbicide caused deformities in frogs, his corporate sponsor, Syngenta, tried to delay publication and subjected his work to lengthy internal review. Hayes was forced to find new funding to replicate his research so that he could publish his findings in a timely manner. Meanwhile, the corporation funded researchers at another university, Texas Tech, to discredit Hayes’s research. That university signed a contract giving Syngenta the right to review and control publication.

Another major problem is conflict of interest. “Today it is common for star professors to consult for the same companies that fund their research; they accept generous fees to join their scientific advisory boards,” Washburn said, and “they hold patent rights to the products they are involved in testing.” A recent study of prominent biomedical journals showed that over one-third of the authors had a significant financial interest in their own reports.

A third area of concern for Washburn is students—in particular, undergraduates—who “have not fared well in this more commercial landscape.” At the same time that legislators have increased spending on medical and biotech research centers in hope of becoming “the next Silicon Valley,” she said, they have “gutted” general funding for university education.

The corporate influence is also skewing curriculum and the research agenda, according to Washburn. For example, after UC Berkeley signed an agreement with a Swiss biotechnology firm that produces genetically modified crops, “industry money poured in to the labs of those scientists involved in developing genetically modified crops.” Meanwhile scholars focused on sustainable agriculture or who were critical of genetic modification “found themselves starved for resources.”

“Even on economic grounds, trying to turn universities into short-term profit centers is foolish,” Washburn said. "It’s important to remember that the biotechnology and computer revolutions were created in the universities at a time when business had no interest in funding this kind of research" because it had no apparent commercial promise.

Arjun Appadurai identified a few larger factors influencing the issue, such as the increasingly pervasive conflict between market values and democracy, intense competition among universities for students, the tendency of parents and university boards to reflect and amplify the commercial ethos, and the fact that research and education are now done by industry as well. For example, Microsoft certification is more important for some professionals than is university training, Appadurai noted. “The university is just one player in the game,” he said. The question must be addressed, therefore, whether universities possess a uniquely valuable relationship to research and teaching.

Warning against “nostalgia” for the past, Leon Botstein pointed out that there has always been a tension in academia between the utilitarian and the pure pursuit of knowledge. “The situation hasn’t gotten worse,” he said, “but the players have changed.”

Moreover, income expectations have risen dramatically in late-twentieth century America, Botstein said. The fact that lawyers and bankers make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the average professor contributes to scholars’ desire to make money from research. “This is not the university’s fault,” he noted.

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