JPMorgan Wants Its Own Ph.D. Program: What's Wrong With That?

A University of Delaware professor explains why he and other faculty are up in arms over the school's plans to team up with America's largest bank. 
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Corporations routinely complain that universities don't do enough to train students for the real world of business. But rather than just carp about it, JPMorgan Chase appears to be taking matters into its own hands. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed reported that America's largest bank was planning to help fund and design a new Ph.D. program in "financial services analytics" at the University of Delaware. JP Morgan would provide $17 million, advise on which faculty will supervise the program, and even sit employees on dissertation committees.

As Inside Higher Ed notes, JPMorgan has already been working with U. Delaware since 2009. It helped create the school's Institute for Financial Analytics and has an office on campus. But this new arrangement seems to have finally crossed the line in the eyes of some faculty, who are predicting a campus revolt. To get a sense of their concerns, I emailed law and political science professor Sheldon Pollack. Below is our exchange, edited slightly for length.  

To be honest, the idea of a JPMorgan-sponsored Ph.D. program didn't strike me as so terrible. But you're deeply concerned about it. In broad terms, what are your objections?

I recognize that the idea of a corporate-sponsored Ph.D. program may not strike non-academics as a problem. If this was a masters’ program, it would not be an issue among us either. But the Ph.D. is an academic degree, not a professional degree. Here are a few objections.

In this case, the content of the program was shaped by JPMorgan. The role of proposing and designing curriculum at this (and most) universities was delegated to the faculty by the board of trustees and the University Faculty Constitution. This is one of the main responsibilities of the University Faculty Senate (of which I was the president when this issue arose). We take this responsibility very seriously. The senate gives careful review to every proposal for a new program, minor, major, new course, etc. A new Ph.D. program will be reviewed by a number of college and university curriculum committees before it comes to the floor of the Senate for a vote. No approval, no program. In this case, the program was proposed by JP Morgan, and they had a hand in designing the curriculum. The dean’s office played the main role in putting it all together. The senior faculty in those departments that are most affected (Finance and Economics) are not behind the proposal. In fact, there is a strong feeling that this is being forced on us. In other words, the process violates our academic norms about faculty governance at the University. That is one thing that greatly troubles me. A big bank should not be able to buy its own Ph.D. program.

But the real issue is that this is not a gift or contribution to the university, but one of those insidious “partnerships” that deans and university president’s like so much. When the ruler of Qatar gives money to an American university for an institute to study the middle east, that is fine. But there can be no strings attached. Money carries weight. The new institute on middle east studies set up with such a “gift” is not likely to take positions that offend the emir. Universities have to have some backbone and resist pressures from outside contributors, who almost always want to influence what is taught or how. In this case, the University of Delaware simply gave JPMorgan control of the entire program. 

I like the metaphor used by the other professor in the article in Inside Higher Ed: he said this was not just strings attached but ropes and chains. JPMorgan people would sit on Ph.D. doctoral committees. That is highly unusual. Of course, it may happen that a doctoral candidate has a faculty member on his or her committee who leaves academics and goes to work at a bank or at DuPont. That is acceptable, but this proposal institutionalizes the arrangement. Academics supervise Ph.D. dissertations. 

JPMorgan already has a big presence on your campus, complete with its own offices. And, as Inside Higher Ed pointed out in its story, the university already lets executives from DuPont sit on some of its dissertation committees. What makes this a bridge too far, in your opinion?

Yes, this carries the “partnership” too far. We had a case last year in which an executive from JPMorgan contacted one of my colleagues to recommend that the instructor use a different text book in his or her class. It may have been an innocent mistake to make such a call (as I was told). But the new arrangement institutionalizes that relationship. If they are putting up $17 million, then I bet they will feel that they can tell us how to teach our courses.

It is very true that DuPont has had a long relationship with our university. They have been very generous in the past with our engineering college. That is commendable. I also would welcome and thank JPMorgan for any financial support – and for hiring our graduates. But that does not mean we should give them control over the curriculum. Likewise, we have an accounting department which educates students who are hired by the Big Four accounting firms. We always appreciate their financial support, and if one of them told us that our curriculum is out of date, we would listen to their advice. But they cannot dictate what is to be taught and how. 

So academic freedom really is one of your big concerns here? 

Academic freedom. Sure. But it is really faculty governance that is at stake here. None of this has come up in the faculty senate yet. When it does, it will provoke intense debate. I suspect that those on the political left (which does not include me) will find this outrageous. I like banks and corporations – but not on the campus.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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