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Social Text 22.2 (2004) 37-66
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The State of University-Industry Relations
Concerns about the university's business deals are as old as the university itself, but never have they been as widespread as they are these days. Nearly everyone assumes that the university has entered a new era, and many feel that the university's traditions of public service and academic freedom are threatened. The era's formal starting point was the 1980 passage of the federal Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities for the first time to retain title to the inventions of their employees. The intent of the legislation was to give universities financial incentives to patent useful technologies, ones that would then be licensed to an industry partner in exchange for royalties on sales.1 The act's supporters argued that the profit motive would enhance the search for new knowledge by linking it to market goals, and the claim that the act promoted entrepreneurship helped it prevail over some prominent opposition.2
By the year 2000, university-industry relations seemed all-encompassing. Athletes had become human billboards for sporting goods companies while their coaches collected large endorsement fees. Student centers had assumed most of the functions of suburban shopping malls, and a large portion of campus Internet traffic was devoted to consumer uses like downloading music files. Universities marketed themselves as prestige brands to the most affluent demographic and raised tuition rates so consistently that graduates carried credit card debt to rival the ever-increasing size of their student loans. From coast to coast, campus life seemed as much about buying stuff as about learning things. After two decades of marketing tie-ins, fiscal crises, and financial incentives, commerce had moved from the edges to the core of the academic mission.
By the late 1980s, critiques of corporate research funding had begun to arrive from the battlegrounds of academic commerce. The president of Harvard University, Derek C. Bok, wrote that contemporary pressures were endangering the university's social mission.3 The president of Yale University, A. Bartlett Giamatti, claimed that commercialization placed faculty members at odds with their academic responsibilities. He described a growing tension between "the private, proprietary corporation, whose norms are competition, efficiency, and 'profit maximization,' and whose goals are short-term, and the traditional university, which is nonprofit, and [End Page 37] whose goals are intellectual, civic, and long-term."4 The international dimensions of this tension were described in the landmark study Academic Capitalism (1997), whose authors anatomized a long-term pattern in which cutbacks in public funding increased the university's dependence on corporate funding, which in turn encouraged universities to fund areas that corporations would support.5
But by the late 1990s, it wasn't clear who still cared. The new economy was in full swing, and the university's main constituency was a professional middle class (PMC) apparently committed to technological and market cures for all economic, social, cultural, physical, and emotional problems. The 1980s authors had assumed that their audience would immediately accept a basic distinction between profit-driven commercialization and knowledge in the public interest. But this was exactly the distinction that the Reagan-Clinton era had undermined. By the late 1990s, most university graduates apparently believed that society's core function was to stimulate economic growth and that as a stimulant, financial incentives worked best. They appeared to assume that the commercialization of the university would lead to the mutual enrichment of both business and the university, that it was one of the synergies that explained the greatness of American capitalism. The pervasive conception of progress through the commercialization of everything was what Louis Althusser might have called the spontaneous philosophy of the PMC.
This was a far cry from the traditional focus of educators, which had been to preserve the university's independence from society's rulers. This had meant no direct control by church or crown or state or elected government or big labor or big business. Independence meant freedom from any ruling ideology, for society's conventional wisdom held...