The Kept University

Commercially sponsored research is putting at risk the paramount value of higher education—disinterested inquiry. Even more alarming, the authors argue, universities themselves are behaving more and more like for-profit companies
Downsizing the Humanities

THE students at Berkeley were not the only ones protesting the growing corporate influence on university research last spring. In March of 1998 students at dozens of schools, including the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and Cornell, held a series of teach-ins on the subject. At George Mason University, a state school in Fairfax County, Virginia, another graduation protest erupted as hundreds of students attached bright pink buttons bearing the slogan "Stop Dis-Engaging Our Future" to their caps and gowns. The buttons, which were distributed by Students for Quality Education, were a pointed reference to a recent George Mason mission statement, "Engaging the Future," which calls for increasing investment in information technology and tightening relations between the university and northern Virginia's booming technology industry.

In 1998 James S. Gilmore, the governor of Virginia, promised to increase state funds for GMU by as much as $25 million a year provided that the university better serve the region's high-tech businesses. GMU's president, Alan G. Merten, a computer scientist and a former dean of the business school at Cornell, hardly needed urging. "We must accept that we have a new mandate, and a new reason for being in existence," he announced at the World Congress on Information Technology, a gathering of industry executives hosted by GMU in the summer of 1998. "The mandate is to be networked." By year's end Merten had added degree programs in information technology and computer science, poured money into the 125-acre Prince William campus, whose focus is biosciences, bioinformatics, biotechnology, and computer and information technology, and suggested that all students would be trained to pass a "technology literacy" test. Amid this whirlwind of change, however, other areas fared less well. Degree programs in classics, German, Russian, and several other humanities departments were eliminated.

In defending the changes, Merten speaks as a realist—and, it's impossible not to notice, as someone versed in the language of the business world. "There was a time when universities weren't held accountable for much—people just threw money at them," he says. Today "people with money are more likely to give you money if you have restructured and repositioned yourself, got rid of stuff that you don't need to have. They take a very dim view of giving you money to run an inefficient organization." The process of making GMU more efficient was, he concedes, "a little bloody at times," but there was a logic to it. "We have a commitment to produce people who are employable in today's technology work force," he says. Students at GMU are "good consumers" who want degrees in areas where there are robust job opportunities, and the university has an obligation to cater to that demand.

But should meeting the demand come at the expense of providing a well-rounded education? In response to GMU's cuts in the humanities 1,700 students signed a petition of protest. In addition, 180 professors in the College of Arts and Sciences sent a letter to President Merten arguing that although training students for the job market was a legitimate goal, "precisely in the face of such an emphasis on jobs and technology, it is more necessary than ever to educate students beyond technological proficiency." Kevin Avruch, a GMU anthropologist who signed the letter, explains, "A university should teach people to read and write and think critically. And my guess is that, ironically, that's what corporations really want as well. If they need to teach them Lotus, they can do that after they graduate."

Perhaps—but what happened at GMU is clearly part of a national trend. In 1995 the Board of Regents in Ohio assessed how the state's education dollars should be spent. The verdict? Eliminate funding for eight doctoral programs in history. James Engell, a professor at Harvard who has chaired that school's steering committees on degree programs in both history and literature, and Anthony Dangerfield, a former Dartmouth English professor, recently concluded a two-year national study of the state of the humanities. From 1970 to 1994, they found, the number of bachelor's degrees conferred in English, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion all declined, while there was a five- to ten-fold increase in degrees in computer and information sciences. The elite top quarter of Ph.D. programs in English have twenty-nine fewer students per program than they had in 1975. Meanwhile, humanities professors on average earn substantially less than their counterparts in other fields, and the gap has widened over the past twenty years.

"Test what you will—majors, salaries, graduate programs ... the results come back the same," Engell and Dangerfield write in a lengthy recent article in the Harvard alumni magazine. "Since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded, and forced to retrench, all as other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth, and influence." The authors trace this to what they call the new "Market-Model University," in which subjects that make money, study money, or attract money are given priority.

Even small liberal-arts colleges are responding to market demand. At the Claremont Colleges, in southern California, a cluster of schools that includes Pomona and Harvey Mudd, a new graduate institute has been launched that features "a curriculum focused on the needs of the industrial sector," a faculty without tenure, and an educational mandate to train students for "professional careers in emerging fields at the intersection of life sciences and engineering."

Surprisingly, such developments have received little attention. Since the early 1980s American culture has obsessively debated the content of the Western canon—whether Shakespeare or Toni Morrison, European history or African history, should be taught to undergraduates. In the decades to come a more pressing question may be whether undergraduates are taught any meaningful literature or history at all. Kevin Avruch says that the recent restructuring at GMU brought home that lesson. "It actually united professors on the left and the right," he says. "This faculty is often characterized as overly liberal, but we discovered that in at least one sense most of us are tremendously conservative: we share a nineteenth-century view that our job is to educate well-rounded citizens."

WHILE humanities professors at some schools are battling to save their departments from being eliminated, others are discovering, much to their surprise, that university administrators have taken a sudden interest in their course material because of its potential for being marketed online. Seemingly overnight the computer revolution has transformed "courseware" into a valuable piece of "content" that can be packaged and sold on the Internet, and online-education companies are racing to collaborate with academic institutions to exploit this burgeoning market.

Berkeley recently signed a deal with America Online, the University of Colorado has teamed up with Real Education, and the Western Governors' Association has founded a "virtual university" linking more than thirty schools in twenty-two states. Michael Milken, the convicted junk-bond trader, is investing heavily in an Internet education company known as, which recently signed deals with Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

In a time of budget shortfalls and dwindling public support for education, university administrators and politicians see online education as a way to expand on the cheap. "Just building campuses is a very expensive proposition," says E. Jeffrey Livingston, the associate commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education. "Governors see [the virtual university] as a way to not spend as much money in the future, to meet growth." "Distance learning" is also seen as a promising new teaching tool and as a way to reach nontraditional education markets, such as part-timers and foreign students.

A growing number of professors, however, fear that electronic education is destined to transform teaching into little more than a commodity. Before a university can sell courseware online, it must first control the rights, and that means, in essence, usurping copyright from the creators of the courses—the faculty. "This is going to be one of the most important battlegrounds of the future," predicts Edward Condren, a professor of medieval literature at the University of California at Los Angeles. In June of 1994 UCLA's extension program—the largest continuing-higher-education program in the country—signed a deal granting exclusive control (including copyright) over the production and distribution of its electronic courses to (then called The Home Education Network). Despite UCLA's much-vaunted faculty-governance structure, Condren says, there was no prior faculty consultation, and the academic senate had to wait until February of 1998 before it was permitted to see any version of the contract. "This is a public institution," Condren says angrily, "and a contract was entered into without any public announcement that bids were being sought."

In addition to being a renowned Chaucer scholar, Condren is an authority on intellectual-property law. For the past twenty-five years he has served as an expert witness in a number of high-profile court cases, and he testified for the winning side in Falwell v. Flynt. "In my opinion," he says, "the UCLA extension program in its electronic offerings is operating illegally. It does not have the copyright assignment from the faculty who own the rights to the courses." Indeed, professors have historically been considered the intellectual "authors," and thus the copyright holders, of their work, says David Noble, a historian at York University, in Toronto, where faculty members recently waged a successful battle to protect their copyrights from challenge. The Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to patent the intellectual discoveries of their faculty members and to share in the royalties, but controlling copyright is radically different, Condren says, because "it would undermine the legal protection that enables faculty to freely express their views without fear of censorship or appropriation of their ideas."

Professors also fear that universities will use distance learning not to enhance education but to eliminate teaching positions. It's a legitimate concern. The New School for Social Research, in New York City, now hires unemployed Ph.D.s to design online courses, pays them a flat fee, and then requires them to sign away copyright so that the school can assign the course as they see fit. Educause, a consortium of over 1,600 academic institutions and more than a hundred and fifty corporations, in 1994 launched a National Learning Infrastructure Initiative that produced a detailed study of what professors do, breaking down which discrete teaching functions can be automated or outsourced for "productivity enhancement." William Massy and Robert Zemsky, education scholars based at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania respectively, argue in a recent Educause paper that universities need information technology to control their budgets. "With labor accounting for seventy percent or more of current operating cost," they assert, "there is simply no other way."

The future the professors fear has already arrived. David Noble, citing figures from the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics, notes that even before the computer revolution, while spending on instruction declined by 9.5 percent at public universities from 1976 to 1994, expenditures on research increased by 21 percent. The American Association of University Professors, examining changes in the academic work force, notes that from 1975 to 1995 the share of full-time faculty positions declined while the use of part-time faculty more than doubled. "In the end students were paying more for their classes and getting less," Noble argues in a recent paper, "Digital Diploma Mills," that links the growth in online learning to the increasingly commercial focus of universities. At least some students seem to agree. In May of 1996, at the University of Utah, Jeff Casper and Heather Fortuna were elected president and vice-president of the student body after running under the slogan "Get Real" and campaigning against the virtual university. "I took a class in one of my majors where the bulk of the instruction was done through computer," Fortuna explained, "and it was the most tedious thing that I ever had to deal with. I learned very little in comparison with the experiences I've had inside the classroom."

IT has been the fate of American higher education to develop in a pre-eminently businesslike culture," the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1952. Through the years, Hofstadter acknowledged, America's universities had fostered the nation's technological and economic development. But too often, he lamented, higher education in America was judged on purely pragmatic grounds. "Education is justified apologetically as a useful instrument in attaining other ends: it is good for business or professional careers," he wrote. "Rarely, however, does anyone presume to say that it is good for man."

Some would argue that Hofstadter's vision of higher education is an unaffordable luxury. In today's information age ideas have become prized commodities. Still, even on the utilitarian grounds that traditionalists like Hofstadter would scorn, preserving the distinction between higher education and business is vitally important.

For if commercial criteria are allowed to prevail, schools not only risk shrinking their educational mission—they risk ceasing to be centers of technological innovation as well. Paul Berg, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist we met with at Stanford, tells a story that dramatically illustrates why. Berg, seventy-three, is a seminal figure in the biotech revolution, having laid the groundwork for splicing DNA to make hybrid molecules. (Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer built on Berg's work to create the first recombinant DNA clone.) His discovery propelled the billion-dollar industry that is now hailed as a model of university-industry relations. But Berg points to an underlying irony. "The biotech revolution itself would not have happened had the whole thing been left up to industry," he says. "Venture-capital people steered clear of anything that didn't have obvious commercial value or short-term impact. They didn't fund the basic research that made biotechnology possible." Berg recalls that shortly after his own pathbreaking discovery he gave a seminar at the Merck pharmaceutical company, where he met a young scientist who had been pursuing the same idea. When this scientist encountered some obstacles after six or seven months, Merck prevented him from continuing to work on the project. "Even though Merck was widely championed for its support of research, they wouldn't let him go beyond a certain point," Berg says, "and that is just one of the limitations of corporate research."

The freedom of universities from market constraints is precisely what allowed them in the past to nurture the kind of open-ended basic research that led to some of the most important (and least expected) discoveries in history. Today, as the line between basic and applied science dissolves, as professors are encouraged to think more and more like entrepreneurs, a question arises: Will the Paul Bergs of the future have the freedom to explore ideas that have no obvious and immediate commercial value? Only, it seems, if universities cling to their traditional ideals and maintain a degree of independence from the marketplace. This will not be easy in an age of dwindling public support for higher education. But the nation's top-flight universities can lead the way by collectively establishing new guidelines designed to preserve academic freedom in all their interactions with industry. These could include forbidding professors from having direct financial ties to the companies sponsoring their research; banning universities themselves from investing in these companies; prohibiting publication delays of more than thirty to sixty days and any other editorial constraints; and minimizing proprietary restrictions on basic research tools. In addition, universities could do more to make the case for preserving public support for higher education while refusing to tailor either the research agenda or the curriculum to the needs of industry. "The best reason for supporting the college and the university," Hofstadter wrote, "lies not in the services they can perform, vital though such services may be, but in the values they represent. The ultimate criterion of the place of higher learning in America will be the extent to which it is esteemed not as a necessary instrument of external ends, but as an end in itself."

Eyal Press is a contributing writer at Lingua Franca. Jennifer Washburn is a writer based in New York. They are both fellows at the Open Society Institute, where they are examining the privatization of the public sphere.
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