A Warning Against Mixing Commerce and Academics
By Sarah Rimer
New York Times
April 16, 2003
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 11 — College presidents always need more money, and in the 1980's, during Derek Bok's tenure as president of Harvard, a major pharmaceutical firm made him a tempting financial offer.
It would pay $1 million a year to Harvard Medical School, along with generous fees for participating faculty members, to produce a series for cable television on recent developments in cardiology. It was willing to allow a disclaimer during every program making it clear that Harvard was not endorsing any of the company's products as long as it could run its advertisements during various points in each episode.
Professor Bok, who is now a university professor, said during a recent interview in his office at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government that the dean of the medical school understandably saw this as "some very welcome money."
But Mr. Bok agonized over the offer. "The reasons for not doing it seemed rather vague and intangible, and I understood his feelings, which didn't make it any easier," he recalled. "But in the end, I told him: 'osh, if we go down this road we're commercializing our teaching. It's just not a good place to go.' "
In his new book, "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education" (Princeton University Press), Mr. Bok recounts this example, and others, in which institutions took the money. He explores the potential dangers colleges and universities face as pressures mount to further blur the boundaries between the corporate and academic worlds.
"What is new about today's commercial practices is not their existence but their unprecedented size and scope," he writes.
Colleges and universities were once largely removed from the marketplace as they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of ideas, discovery and truth, and to the education of students for the common good. In exchange, they received from society academic freedom, tax exemptions and the public trust.
In today's world, Mr. Bok writes, drug companies pour billions of dollars into medical schools, universities sell the right to use their scientific discoveries to industry, and faculty members occupy such industry-endowed chairs as the Kmart professor of marketing.
Prominent professors start their own venture capital companies, earn lucrative consulting fees and market their lectures through the Internet. "Certainly many more people in academic life think that you can have all the virtues of that life and be rich at the same time — in fact they think you ought to," Mr. Bok said.
Where commercialism on campuses was once largely confined to athletics, it is now booming in medical schools and research labs, with their ever-increasing need for resources. And, Professor Bok writes, with a depressed economy, federal deficits and state cutbacks in higher education all contributing to chronic money shortages on campus, college and university administrators are under intense pressure to become yet more entrepreneurial.
"If universities had enough money, there would be something wrong with them," Mr. Bok said in the interview. "If you have genuinely creative people among your students and faculty, they are always going to come up with interesting ideas that are worth pursuing. The essence of the university is to have more opportunities than you can afford."
But unless institutions remain clear about their academic values as they pursue new opportunities to earn and raise money, he writes, "commercialization threatens to change the character of the university in ways that limit its freedom, sap its effectiveness and lower its standing in society."
"Company officials," he writes, "regularly insist that information concerning the work they support be kept secret while the research is going on and for a long enough time thereafter to allow them to decide whether to file for a patent." Also, he writes, they may treat other valuable information as unsuitable for patenting, but as permanent trade secrets instead.
This sort of secrecy, he writes, is sharply at odds with the academic values of openness and collegiality, and will probably "inhibit scientific progress, at least to some extent, by limiting the flow of information and ideas that investigators need in order to advance their work." In some instances, Mr. Bok writes, drug companies have pressured researchers to suppress unfavorable findings.
Professor Bok, who was president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991, echoes the worries of many of his colleagues in higher education. At Brown University, a group of academics started a study group several years ago, called the Futures Project, to examine a number of higher education policy questions, including concerns about commercialization.
In his book, Mr. Bok holds up big intercollegiate athletics programs, where some football and basketball coaches earn annual salaries of $500,000, students are recruited only for their athletic ability and huge amounts of money are poured into stadiums and training facilities, as the worst example of how commercialization can erode the values and goals of the institution. "Athletics is the one case where you can see this develop over a long period of time and observe the kind of irreversible problems you can get into," Mr. Bok said.
But it is in the sciences, he says, where commercialization has now taken hold most firmly.
Even Mr. Bok takes pains to acknowledge that the new entrepreneurialism on campus has brought significant benefits, that enormous scientific progress has been made, and that not everyone shares his concerns about the potential dangers. (Harvard's endowment in June 2001 was $18.3 billion.)
"The new opportunities for earning money have clearly helped make universities more attentive to public needs," he writes.
But while the worst fears of the critics of industry's involvement with academic science were not realized, according to Mr. Bok, serious problems involving secrecy and conflicts of interest have arisen, fueled by industry's need to keep commercially valuable results away from competitors.
"Unlike athletics," Mr. Bok writes, "commercialization of research is still relatively new, and universities are not yet bound irrevocably to indefensible policies. Only time will tell whether they manage to do a better job of maintaining appropriate standards for science than they have done in upholding academic values on their playing fields."