- University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education
In a well-written journalistic exposé, Jennifer Washburn in University, Inc. explores the evolution of the "corporate corruption of higher education." Washburn does an impressive job of detailing the growing role of commercial interests in higher education and how these interests challenge the production and transfer of knowledge. She provides examples past and present, then charts the way to a more positive future by offering recommendations for "preserving the public domain" of higher education.
The book is part of a growing genre of books written about issues related to colleges and universities by authors outside the academy. Scholars of higher education need to be aware of this literature for precisely the reasons that Washburn is writing: Higher education is not the province of only academics anymore. With the increasing cost of a college education has come an accompanying scrutiny of what takes place in the academy. The book is an interesting read and is sure to be of general interest to faculty members, students, and higher education practitioners.
Washburn's book traces the relationships between business and the university community from the late 19th century to the present. By the 1970s, several factors had converged to spur the influence of commercialization on universities. Concomitantly, the American economy became increasingly knowledge-driven; and many companies—unprepared for this shift—turned to universities for assistance in keeping up with an increasingly global market.
In this climate, university administrators saw an opportunity to make money from the research being conducted on their campuses. Large research institutions enjoyed lucrative success, even though more than 50% of the nation's universities spent more on technology transfer operations than they earned in revenue from patents and licensing agreements. In the process, the university's culture of openness and collaboration on scientific discovery has eroded; and growing conflicts of interest, as well as the demands of start-up businesses operating out of faculty research labs, have the potential to negatively impact the professional development of future generations of scientists. The result of this trend poses what Washburn calls "the single greatest threat to the future of higher education" (p. x). [End Page 422]
In presenting a critical chronology of the links between business and higher education, the author makes it clear that nothing she discusses is necessarily unique to the current period. What is "truly new, and dangerous," she argues, "is the degree to which market forces have penetrated into the heart of academia itself, causing American universities to look and behave more and more like for-profit commercial enterprises" (p. 140). In this climate, any field that cannot be connected directly to a revenue-generation stream loses value.
The consequences of a preoccupation with profit motives pose a serious threat to the humanities at precisely the time, Washburn points out, when American society needs the likes of ethicists to help sort out the conflicts of interest arising in these new corporate-university relationships. Business also needs leaders who are adept abstract thinkers and who can work in an environment that is free of profit pressures. Washburn warns of the peril of a university too focused on corporate interests and asks: "If universities become little more than appendages of industry, will they be able to generate the innovative ideas needed to sustain our competitive position in the global economy?" (p. xviii). She fears not, and the book details why.
Washburn challenges the long-standing commitment in academic culture to "self regulation and community oversight" (p. 135). There is, however, an inherent conflict in her ideas. Many universities, she argues, are being compelled into partnership with corporate America by governors and legislators determined to use the university to remake a state's economy. An example is former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's "New Wisconsin" concept. Yet in Washburn's proposal to mediate the conflicts of interest in many university-industry partnerships, she calls for renewed federal regulation. Her final chapter focuses on federal regulation, yet...