Corporate assaults on university values?

Another day, another report on how universities are all going to the dogs. This one is in the form of a book due to be published in September, but which has been previewed on the rather interesting website Truthout (dedicated to ‘equality, democracy, human rights, accountability and social justice’). The book in question is by an American professor, Ellen Schrecker, and its title is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom and the End of the American University.

From the summary and commentary on Truthout, much of the book goes down a fairly well travelled path, arguing that academic freedom is under constant assault as politicians and (usually) right wing pressure groups train their guns at any academic with a radical, anti-establishment message. For once the author does not appear to claim that this is a new phenomenon or one that has been growing recently, as she points to various assaults on academics going back at the least to the McCarthy era. In fact, the only example taken from a more recent case (at least that we learn about from this review) is that of Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado, who was dismissed in 2007 for serious research misconduct. As he was the author of some very controversial material, it has been argued that his dismissal was politically motivated; but then again, the complaints that led to the investigation about his research methods came from other academics who claimed he had misused their research. Still, I have an open mind on this case, and of course it may be that he was targeted for unacceptable reasons. But that’s just one case, and the other examples all go back at least a few decades.

And then Professor Schrecker, we learn, adds a new and recent element to this horror story: the role of companies in undermining higher education integrity. This, we are told, has arisen because universities need to get more money to replace serious cuts in public funding, and so they turn to the private sector. And when they do, companies that universities seek to partner start making demands about the topics to be researched and try to ‘stifle findings’ that they find commercially inconvenient.

Of course I haven’t read the book and must rely on this particular assessment of it, but if the summary is at all accurate then this is a weak and somewhat misleading argument. First of all, no sane university looks to research deals with companies to compensate for public funding cuts. Such deals can sustain research teams and overheads, but they certainly don’t produce profits that could off-set reduced budgets; indeed sometimes they run at a loss. Secondly, I have absolutely never come across an academic who is unwillingly doing research under a research contract entered into with a business partner. I’m not saying it never happens, but if it does it is most rare; generally such contracts are entered into at the initiative of the faculty who undertake the work. Therefore, while such contracts may or may not be good, and may or may not have sufficient intellectual integrity, this have little to do with academic freedom, one way or another. Equally I have never come across an industry contract under which research findings have been ‘stifled’. My own university would absolutely never agree to enter into any contract where this might happen and would resolutely reject any such attempt were it made. And I don’t think we are unusual.

I shall order the book when it is published, but for now I am not expecting to be impressed when I get to read it. Of course we must ensure that we protect intellectual integrity and autonomy, but we’ll do that more effectively and certainly more credibly if we don’t exaggerate the dangers facing us. I acknowledge that there are influential people, media outlets and pressure groups that target individual academics they don’t like, but mostly universities will stand firm in the face of such attacks. I also accept that business links need to be built up carefully and need to be monitored. But to suggest that higher education is riddled with attacks on academic freedom and that this is somehow connected with what is described as ‘corporatisation’ seems to me to be sloppy analysis and not helpful.

Of course it is perfectly acceptable to argue that universities should not collaborate with corporate partners; that’s not an argument I would put forward myself, but it is a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if it is to be made it should be based on a debate around academic standards and ethics; connecting it with academic freedom is much more doubtful.

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7 Comments on “Corporate assaults on university values?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Might this be seen as something like the Daily Mail, where it makes a shilling forever stating that all that’s good is going ta hell in a hand basket.

    But the only issue I can see for a good while was the firing of the DDR academics after reunification, they did produce some very good spin on The German Peasants’ War amongst others. It caused the Historians on both sides to really life their game.

  2. Niall Says:

    British cardiologist, Peter Wilmshurst, is currently being sued by a medical device manufacturer who didn’t like his research findings on their product

    • Actually, Niall, that case may be more complex than that. It is not really about academic freedom. Dr Wilmshurst was not compelled to join in the research, nor was any pressure put on him to adjust the results. The case is about whether his subsequent criticisms were fair and whether his statements were true; they were disputed by another academic. The resulting case is a libel case. Here’s another report on it, with a little more detail:

      I’m not suggesting the case against him is a good one, indeed I hope it fails for all sorts of reasons. I agree that being free to criticise research findings and methods is important. But it doesn’t wholly back Dr Schrecker’s thesis.

      • Vincent Says:

        Is this not that libel tourism ?, where the UK or Canadian Laws are being used where the 1st Amendment and its provisions against the abridging of freedom of speech prevent such use in the States.

  3. cormac Says:

    I thought the general point “universities need to get more money to replace serious cuts in public funding, and so they turn to the private sector” is true in an indirect way.
    In physics research today, it is very difficult to get funding for fundamental research (astrophysics, particle physics etc).Most government and EU funding programs specifically target areas thought to be important to technological industry in the near future. Hence research tends to get skewed in certain directions – which is a pity, because the big breakthroughs in science often come in obscure areas…

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