University avarice and moral decay

  • Education
  • Sunday, 01 Jun 2003



The Commercialisation of Higher Education 

By Derek Bok 

Publisher: Princeton University Press 


WHAT might Harvard do for money if necessary? Put Nike logos on sports uniforms or the gym? Hold back a scientific discovery until it could be patented or produced? Offer credentials over the Internet?  

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, begins his new book with this nightmare of university avarice and moral decay. Some of the moneymaking schemes are imaginary, but, as Bok warns, the dangers inherent in the insatiable demands for revenue are not.  

How colleges and universities relate to the marketplace and the world beyond their walls is not merely an academic issue. These institutions are an engine of prosperity, training specialists and the workforce, advancing scientific discoveries and moving people up the ladder of socio-economic advancement.  

But it is increasingly difficult to meet higher education's insatiable financial demands through conventional means. To retain or gain top rankings, universities and colleges are continually building programmes and facilities, seeking to hire or steal away top faculty members. As a result, the costs of the higher education sector have exploded, rising about 6% a year. Tuition covers only a part.  

The hunt for profits is not a new story. College sports, for example, have long been expected to encourage alumni giving. The paradox, as Bok points out, is that sports have not been a good money-maker. But competition among universities and colleges has nevertheless kept up the pressure for more aggressive athletic programmes, often undermining their educational value.  

Collaboration with corporations to find and patent practical scientific discoveries has proved more profitable, Bok writes. Supported by companies seeking new drugs or other products, universities also invest in faculty-run companies, often entering into dubious agreements that impose secrecy on research or delay publication of findings until patents and profits have been ensured.  

Bok notes that commercialisation has seeped even into the core educational mission. Executive and other training programmes have been offered for top fees. Universities have sought profits, thus far with little success, in Internet ventures offering distance learning and credentials. On campus, efforts to attract and retain satisfied student “consumers” feed grade inflation and the dumbing down of courses.  

Yet as chilling as Bok's warnings are, they could go even further. For instance, the competition for admission selectivity and higher rankings has produced too much anxiety among applicants and too little socio-economic diversity in the student body. 

Institutions also increasingly compete with one another for star faculty, paying large salaries to attract celebrity professors who demand lighter teaching loads, setting the stage for all faculty to make similar demands and undermining the focus on teaching.  

Bok does not address an even more important problem, how market competition has encouraged elite institutions at the top of the educational pyramid to ignore their social responsibilities and interest in helping to improve the primary and secondary educational systems below them. But such efforts would not bring in funds: They may require time and resources. And the United States at large suffers from the way that education, like society as a whole, is divided into rich and poor.  

Bok has thought hard about these issues and to his great credit has tried to envision solutions to some of them. He advocates “arms control” for athletics and a ban on research secrecy or investment in faculty ventures. But his warnings may not be so easily heeded, as he himself fears.  

In his seminal work a half century ago, Karl Polanyi demonstrated that the ravages of the market upon society at large have been contained only by the efforts of its victims to demand protections and limits.  

But in the contemporary academy, there is no constituency whose interests are hurt by commercialisation and, as Bok says, the “structure of governance in most universities is not equal to the challenge of resisting the excesses.” – IHT 


Anthony W. Marx is the incoming president of Amherst College

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