- Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
"On a sunny afternoon in 1852, two groups of oarsmen—one from Harvard and one from Yale—raced against each other on Lake Winnepesaukee. The students [End Page 457] may not have known it, but they were participating in the first intercollegiate sports contest in the United States. Even then, although there were no paying spectators or television crews, the event had definite commercial overtones. The race was the brainchild of a railroad owner and real estate developer who hoped to attract the public's attention to the charms of Southern New Hampshire by staging an athletic spectacle. With calculating shrewdness, he lured the athletes to compete by offering to pay all their expenses and supply them with "lavish prizes" and "unlimited alcohol" (35). From this modest beginning, Derek Bok reports, have sprung not only intercollegiate athletics, with their big-time football and basketball, but also the wider commercialization of American higher education. And the effects of that transformation have been far-reaching.
Corporate partnerships, institutional marketing, brand image, strategic alliances, for-profit ventures, faculty entrepreneurism, targeted outreach, patent licensing, creative sponsorship, intellectual incubators—these are the terms of relationship heard more and more frequently in the academic halls of power. Universities, some fear, are not only in the marketplace; they have become a new sector of the marketplace. It is this concern that Bok describes and analyzes in his latest book, Universities in the Marketplace.
Universities, Bok observes, now provide the three essential ingredients of international growth and national prosperity: highly trained specialists, expert knowledge, and science-based technology. Knowledge—once arcane—has become a valuable commodity. What is new about this wave of commercial engagement by universities, Bok argues, is not its existence, but its size and scope. A century ago, the University of Chicago was advertising to attract students, Penn had a bureau of publicity, and many institutions supported correspondence schools and extension programs. But now commercialization underlies scores of activities, as institutions seek to make a profit from their teaching, research, and other activities, including not least their athletic programs. Lucrative consulting contracts, for both individual faculty and the university itself, are commonplace, while for-profit distance learning programs have sprung up at almost every institution.
What accounts for this surge in commercial activity during the past quarter-century? Bok argues persuasively that there are multiple causes: increasing competition for leading faculty, competition from media rankings of universities, the development of new marketable technologies, reductions in state and federal government funding, a lack of clarity about academic values and priorities, and a host of money-making opportunities in continuing education have all played a role. But the biggest factor, Bok argues, has been the characteristic that universities share with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires. This is a "chronic condition of American universities, a condition inherent in the nature of the institution."
But, granted commercialization exists, is it a threat? Or is it, rather, simply a fact of current academic life, more or less neutral in its effects and benign in its influence? Bok argues that the effects of the marketplace are neither consistently [End Page 458] useful, nor wholly irrelevant in trying to improve the performance of research universities. But, he warns, the development of big-time intercollegiate athletics illustrates how far the corrosive influence of commercialization can go, with skyboxes, million-dollar contracts for coaches, year-round training regimens of near-professional rigor for athletes, huge squads of scholarship-indentured, subsidized athletes, whose graduation rates in some sports are a scandal, together with questionable admission policies and shadowy activities of armies of individual boosters and sponsors. That, alas, is not an inaccurate picture of the situation on some of the largest campuses.
Scientific research, corporate partnerships, and technology transfer represent newer areas of commercialization. Although the worst predictions and alarms heard a quarter-century ago generally have not materialized, and industrial collaboration has produced some notable benefits (the Research...