Academia for Sale (Standards Included)
By ANTHONY W. MARX
New York Times
May 17, 2003
What might Harvard do for money if necessary? Put Nike logos on sports uniforms or the gym? Hold back a scientific discovery until it could be patented or produced? Offer credentials over the Internet?
Derek Bok, the former longtime president of Harvard, begins his new book, "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education," with this nightmare of university avarice and moral decay. Some of the moneymaking schemes are imaginary, but, as Mr. Bok warns, the dangers inherent in the insatiable demands for revenue are not.
How colleges and universities relate to the marketplace and the world beyond their walls is not merely an academic issue. These institutions are an engine of prosperity, training specialists and the workforce, advancing scientific discoveries and moving people up the ladder of socioeconomic advancement.
It is increasingly difficult, though, to meet higher education's insatiable financial demands through conventional means. To retain or gain top rankings, universities and colleges are continually building programs and facilities, seeking to hire or steal away top faculty members. As a result, the costs of the higher education sector have exploded, rising about 6 percent a year, second only to health care costs. Tuition covers only a part.
The hunt for profits is not a new story, as Mr. Bok reminds us. College sports, for example, have long been expected to encourage alumni giving. Already a century ago, college football became so aggressive that President Theodore Roosevelt was forced to step in. After 21 collegians were killed by the "flying wedge" formation, he encouraged the founding of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to provide constraints. Of course, college athletes are rarely killed in sports now, but many are still exploited, admitted with lower scores and given too little time after practices to study.
The paradox, as Mr. Bok points out, is that sports have not been a good moneymaker. But competition among universities and colleges has nevertheless kept up the pressure for more aggressive athletic programs, often undermining their educational value.
Collaboration with corporations to find and patent practical scientific discoveries has proved more profitable, Mr. Bok writes. Supported by companies seeking new drugs or other products, universities also invest in faculty-run companies, often entering into dubious agreements that impose secrecy on research or delay publication of findings until patents and profits have been ensured.
Research and testing have been biased. (I have even heard of university patent officers urging researchers to design lifesaving devices that require more frequent replacement, thereby increasing potential profits.) Faculty hiring, promotion and salaries have been skewed by a university's profit-seeking strategies.
Mr. Bok notes that commercialization has seeped even into the core educational mission. Executive and other training programs have been offered for top fees. Universities have sought profits — thus far with little success — in Internet ventures offering distance learning and credentials. On campus, efforts to attract and retain satisfied student "consumers" feed grade inflation and the dumbing down of courses.
Yet as chilling as Mr. Bok's warnings are, they could go even further. For instance, the competition for admission selectivity and higher rankings has produced too much anxiety among applicants and too little socioeconomic diversity in the student body.
Institutions of higher education also increasingly compete with one another for star faculty, paying large salaries to attract celebrity professors who demand lighter teaching loads, setting the stage for all faculty members to make similar demands and generally undermining the focus on teaching.
Mr. Bok does not address an even more important problem, how market competition has encouraged elite institutions at the top of the educational pyramid to ignore their social responsibility and interest in helping to improve the primary and secondary educational systems below them.
But such efforts would not bring in funds: rather, they may require time and resources. And the country at large suffers from the way that education, like society as a whole, is divided into rich and poor.
Derek Bok has thought hard about these issues and to his great credit has tried to envision solutions to some of them. He advocates "arms control" for athletics and a ban on research secrecy or investment in faculty ventures.
But Mr. Bok's warnings may not be so easily heeded, as he himself fears. In his seminal work a half century ago, Karl Polanyi demonstrated that the ravages of the market upon society at large have been contained only by the efforts of its victims to demand protections and limits. But in the contemporary academy, there is no constituency — except the larger scholarly mission — whose interests are hurt by commercialization and, as Mr. Bok says, the "structure of governance in most universities is not equal to the challenge of resisting the excesses."
Universities cannot effectively teach ethics if they are themselves unethical, nor can they hope to teach that there is more to life than making money if they are unconstrained in their search for revenue.
Our best protection may lie in self-criticism within the university — in scholars and officers asserting their passion for knowledge over their interest in profits. In our present market-driven culture, this may be a weak reed to rely on, but it is the only hope. Having a Derek Bok to remind us of our higher calling and the present dangers may, if his words are heeded, be more consequential than we can imagine.