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boundary 2 27.1 (2000) 7-50

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Ivory Tower in Escrow *

Masao Miyoshi **

Higher education is undergoing a rapid sea change. Everyone knows and senses it, but few try to comprehend its scope or imagine its future. This [End Page 7] two-part essay makes some guesses by observing recent events and recalling the bygone past. Part 1 describes the quickening conversion of learning into intellectual property and of the university into the global corporation in today’s research universities in the United States—and, increasingly, everywhere else. Part 2 puzzles over the failure of the humanities at this moment as a supposed agency of criticism and intervention.

1. The Conversion of Learning into Intellectual Property

Richard C. Atkinson, the president of the University of California since 1995, has repeatedly sought to identify the role of the world’s largest research university. As he sees it, the goal of today’s research university is to build an alliance with industries: “The program works like this. A UC researcher joins with a scientist or engineer from a private company to develop a research proposal. A panel of experts drawn from industry and academia selects the best projects for funding.”1 Thus, although university research encompasses “basic research, applied research, and development,” basic research, now called “curiosity research . . . driven by a sheer interest in the phenomena,” is justified only because “it may reach the stage where there is potential for application and accordingly a need for applied research.”2 Development—that is, industrial utility—is the principal objective of the research university.

In another short essay titled “Universities and the Knowledge-Based Economy,” Atkinson remarks that “universities like Cambridge University and other European universities almost all take the view that university research should be divorced from any contact with the private sector.” In contrast to this “culture that eschewed commercial incentives,” there has always been in the United States “a tendency to build bridges between universities and industry.”3 This is the background, as he sees it, of places [End Page 8] such as Silicon Valley and Route 128, and he proceeds to claim that one in four American biotech companies is in the vicinity of a UC campus, and that 40 percent of Californian biotech companies, including three of the world’s largest, Amgen, Chiron, and Genetech, were started by UC scientists.

How does this marketized university protect its academic integrity? Atkinson is confident: “Our experience over the last 15 years or so has taught us a great deal about safeguarding the freedom to publish research findings, avoiding possible conflicts of interest and in general protecting the university’s academic atmosphere and the free rein that faculty and students have to pursue what is of interest to them.”4 The issue of academic freedom—as well as the conflict of interest and commitment—is in fact complex and treacherous in today’s entrepreneurial university, as we will see later. However, in this essay, written soon after he took office, Atkinson dismisses academic freedom as an already resolved negotiation between “academic atmosphere” and personal interest, and he has not touched the subject again since.

Like most university administrators today, Atkinson makes no extensive educational policy statement, not to say a full articulation of his educational views and thoughts, most announcements being scattered among truncated speeches or op-ed pieces.5 The days of Robert M. Hutchins and Derek Bok, never mind Wilhelm von Humboldt and John Henry Newman, are long gone. It is thus perfectly understandable, if somewhat disquieting to a few, that he should give minimally short shrift to research in the humanities and social sciences in the university.

According to Atkinson, the university does have another role as “the shaper of character, a critic of values, a guardian of culture,” but that is in “education and scholarship,” which presumably are wholly distinct activities from serious R & D. He thus pays tributes, in his Pullias Lecture at the University of Southern California, to only one specific example each from the two divisions of human knowledge. As for the social sciences, he mentions [End Page 9] just one...


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pp. 7-50
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Archived 2004
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