Corporate Bondage

Corporate Bondage

Ellen Schrecker on Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.

University Inc.: The Corporate
Corruption of Higher Education
by Jennifer Washburn
Basic Books, 2005, 326 pp $26

In the 1970s, I hung out with some molecular biologists at Harvard. Like the rest of our group of graduate students and young faculty members, they worked hard, worried about tenure and promotion, and partied a lot. But they were also busy setting up private companies. Little did we know that they were riding the crest of the corporate tsunami that has overwhelmed or, as Jennifer Washburn argues, deformed the nation’s campuses. By infusing academic research with bottom-line concerns, these entrepreneurial ventures have, she claims, helped to transform American universities into commercial rather than educational institutions.

Of course, American universities have always catered to outside interests. Public service was, after all, one of the principal justifications for establishing the country’s state university system. Farmers, businesses, and state and local agencies all profited from academic research, but higher education’s main client, at least since the Second World War, has been the federal government, the Defense Department in particular. As a result, national security considerations have often determined the kind of work that would get done on campus. Although Washington remains a major player, it now operates within an academic climate that has become increasingly permeated by corporate values.

The big change occurred in the 1970s, when the postwar economic boom that had bankrolled the expansion of American higher education ended and support for the public sector began to erode, forcing the nation’s colleges and universities to confront a new world of scarcity. Research scientists, who had grown dependent on the federal government, felt the pressure in an especially virulent fashion. Grants that were once almost automatically doled out if the applicant was, as one of my graduate school biologist friends put it, “a serious person who had … good ideas,” became hard to get, awarded on a “whimsical” or “arbitrary” basis.Mark Ptashne, interviewed by James Watson, September 1997, Lasker Foundation Award, www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/library/1997b_int_pmall.shtml#1 (accessed April 27, 2005). Academic science, already a competitive enterprise, turned into a struggle for survival.

By the late 1970s, all of academe—not just individual scientists—was struggling to survive. Although the amount of money that the nation’s colleges and universities received from their traditional state and federal funders did not decline, that money covered an ever smaller percentage of those institutions’ rising expenses. Berkeley, which received 50 percent of its budget from the state of California in 1980, now gets about 34 percent. Federal grants, w...


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