The Purely Pragmatic University

The costs of commercializing the academy

American universities face exceptional opportunities and exceptional risks. Their research is needed more than ever, now that new scientific discoveries and expert knowledge have become so essential to progress in healthcare, national security, economic growth, and other endeavors that matter to the nation. At the same time, with jobs becoming more complicated and careers increasingly subject to sudden change, adults in many occupations and many stages of life are returning to campus for further study. Many of those seeking help from the academy are willing to pay handsomely for what they need. As a result, universities and their faculties are discovering more opportunities to earn a profit from their work than ever before.

While president, for example, I was asked to have Harvard invest in start-up companies founded by professors to capitalize on their research; to allow a drug company to pay the Medical School a handsome fee for helping create a Harvard TV series about health, complete with corporate advertising; to operate entire educational divisions at a profit to subsidize other campus programs. Since universities are forever in need of funds, such opportunities are extremely tempting. Unfortunately, however, the quest for profit could easily end by damaging universities and sullying their contributions to the nation's welfare.

Fortunately, Harvard has been quite prudent in choosing which profit-making ventures to pursue. But many universities have been much less careful. Eventually, they are likely to discover that attempts to make money in the world of commerce often come with a Faustian bargain in which academic institutions have to compromise their academic values — and thereby risk their very souls — in order to enjoy the rewards of the marketplace.

Of course, not all ties with industry are suspect, nor should universities avoid every attempt to earn a financial return from their activities. The money made from patenting scientific discoveries has elicited much valuable effort to put laboratory advances to practical use. The profits earned from executive-training programs have encouraged faculties to work hard to create better programs to serve genuine business needs. Properly managed, universities can find many legitimate ways to share their knowledge with industry and meet the growing demand for continuing education while making some money along the way.

Thus far, however, too many universities have ignored the risks that profit-making activities often bring in their wake. In the struggle for competitive advantage, they have embraced one dubious venture after another in the hope of gaining added revenue. The end to which this process could lead is not a pretty sight to behold. One can imagine a university of the future tenuring professors of modest talent because they bring in large amounts of patent royalties and industrial funding; paying high salaries to recruit "celebrity" scholars who can improve the institution's image; admitting less-than-qualified students in return for handsome parental gifts; allowing corporate advertising to accompany popular executive programs in exchange for a hefty subsidy; promoting profitable Internet courses of inferior quality while canceling more substantial conventional offerings that cannot cover their costs; encouraging professors to spend more time delivering routine research services to attract corporate clients; even presenting symposia and "academic" conferences planned by marketing experts in its development office to lure potential donors to the campus.

Should this vision come to pass, university officials would doubtless defend their practices as a means of financing other valuable academic pursuits that cannot pay their way. Yet in the end, experience suggests that after officials finish paying for unexpectedly high marketing costs, sharing the profits with insistent faculty participants, and absorbing the losses from various failed initiatives, little money will remain to give to other worthwhile programs. In return for such meager rewards, universities will have compromised many of their basic academic standards and jeopardized their reputations in the eyes of the public.


Endangering Education

This picture of the future may seem exaggerated, but it does not go very far beyond existing practices. There is not much difference between granting admission in return for a handsome gift and giving preference to the children of major donors. Nor is corporate influence over curricula more than an extension of what currently occurs in organizing continuing-education programs for doctors. Some universities have allowed commercial advertising to accompany educational programs, and some development officers have inspired "academic" symposia as a way of cultivating potential donors. Universities may not yet be willing to trade all of their academic values for money, but they have proceeded much farther down that road than their officials are willing to acknowledge.

This process is most apparent in the field of intercollegiate athletics, which represents the oldest example of commercialization on campus. To sustain their athletics programs, most colleges currently admit from 5 percent of all their students (in public universities) to more than 30 percent (in liberal-arts colleges) with the expectation that they will play on varsity teams, according to James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen in The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001). While some of these students would be welcome even if they had no athletic ability, many would never be admitted save for a talent that bears no necessary relation to the true mission of the university.

In high-profile programs in the revenue-producing sports, such as football and basketball, the compromises with academic standards are particularly severe. In most of these programs, education is completely subordinate to the demands of the sport. The athletes involved typically enter with academic credentials far below those of their classmates. Once admitted, athletics dominate their lives, interfering with their classes, affecting their choice of courses, allowing them too little time to have a full college life. Eventually, they either fail to graduate or finish only with the help of intensive tutoring, frequently taking courses of questionable rigor specially designed for their benefit.

Unfortunately, the damage done by intercollegiate athletics is by no means confined to schools that maintain big-time programs. Even small liberal-arts colleges assemble football, basketball, and hockey teams by admitting students recruited by their coaching staff with test scores substantially beneath the school-wide average. Most of these students perform well below their potential academically. More than two-thirds finish in the bottom third of their graduating class. Although the schools involved do not give athletic scholarships or indulge in many of the worst practices of the big-time universities, their small size leads them to admit much larger proportions of their entire student body for athletic reasons. As a result, the effects of their athletic recruiting and admissions practices are much more widely felt throughout the college community.

Commercialization has also taken a toll on the quality of educational programs. Many institutions seeking to profit from their continuing-education divisions have followed academic policies of a kind they would never allow in their regular degree programs. They have granted little or no financial aid, while keeping faculty compensation well below the normal scale for the rest of the university. As a result, access to these programs has suffered, along with the quality of instruction. In medical schools, pharmaceutical companies offering large subsidies threaten the objectivity and balance of programs for practicing physicians. In the future, further harm could result from commercializing Internet programs if universities, in their zeal to make money, try to attract large paying audiences by offering flashy lecture courses that do not take full advantage of the interactive power that new technology gives to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

The encroachment of commercialization on educational values is particularly unfortunate because it depends, at bottom, on a willingness to take unfair advantage of students. Years ago, university-sponsored correspondence schools tried to make money by using high-pressure marketing coupled with policies that denied students refunds when they tried to drop courses that proved to be disappointing. Today, colleges in Division I arguably exploit their football and basketball players by agreeing with other institutions to restrict their compensation while working them long hours and giving them an education that often falls far short of what other undergraduates receive. Tomorrow, universities may use the Internet to peddle courses of doubtful quality to unwary individuals eager to gain a credential from a well-known institution. Even if such practices break no laws, it is unworthy of universities to earn money by exploiting students — no matter how lofty the purposes for which the profits will allegedly be used. Every action of this kind violates the obligation to make all educational decisions for the benefit of those being taught and not for some ulterior purpose.


Subverting Science

In the case of scientific research, the worst fears about the effects of corporate funding have not yet come to pass. Even so, universities have clearly made compromises with standards of behavior long considered important to a healthy process of inquiry. In exchange for industry funding, campus officials have accepted secrecy requirements that often last longer than corporate sponsors need to protect their legitimate interests. Many medical faculties have failed to take sufficiently strong measures to prevent conflicts of interest, despite evidence that financial considerations can skew the results of clinical research and even compromise the welfare of patients. Universities and their hospitals have not always shielded their faculty from corporate pressure to suppress unfavorable research findings; in some cases, they have failed to stop company sponsors from blocking publication, editing research results, or even writing drafts of articles and reports that later appear in print under the names of faculty investigators. It is impossible to measure the harm that results from these shabby practices. What is clear is that most of the damage could have been avoided with little, if any, sacrifice of corporate funding had universities merely been more vigilant in guarding their basic academic values.

Fortunately, researchers have been surprisingly resistant to the worst temptations of commercialism. Contrary to much popular opinion, relatively few scientists chase after lucrative business opportunities at the expense of their teaching duties or research agendas. By most accounts, the time spent consulting outside the university has not increased significantly in recent decades, and professors who consult a lot teach as much and perform as many administrative chores as their colleagues. By and large, therefore, academic norms have proved to be stronger than the lure of making money.

University leaders would make a great mistake, however, if they assumed that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely. The world of academic science is still dominated by senior figures who grew up and acquired their values in a much less commercial environment. No one knows what will happen when the mantle of authority passes to a generation of researchers who have spent their entire professional lives surrounded by tempting opportunities to start new firms or to help private companies develop lucrative products. There is evidence, however, that entrepreneurial activity is most likely to grow in departments that already have a cluster of members engaged in such pursuits. Such findings suggest that once new values begin to take hold and alter the priorities of university scientists, the trend will be increasingly difficult to stop.


At the Brink

The preceding discussion reveals clear signs of excessive commercialization in every aspect of university work. Fortunately, the trend is not yet irreversible in any area (barring a few high-profile competitive sports). In the all-important domains of education and research, academic leaders still have the power to develop appropriate policies. But universities are approaching a critical juncture. They can try hard to create and enforce more effective limits on commercialization. Or, they can temporize, compromise, rationalize, and continue the gradual slide into habits that could eventually alter their character in ways detrimental to their teaching, research, and standing in the community.

Why should university leaders want to seize the moment to stop such decay? Setting proper limits and providing supportive structures to maintain them will take a lot of work by faculty, administration, and trustees. The effort will not be free of controversy. Entrepreneurial professors may resist new rules. Boosters may protest athletic reforms. Corporations may occasionally refuse to enter into a lucrative research contract.

But even though these difficulties are real, the cost of continued neglect promises to be even greater. The purely pragmatic university, intent upon increasing its financial resources by any lawful means, may gain a temporary advantage now and then, but it is not an institution that is likely to prosper in the long run.

By compromising basic academic principles, universities tamper with the ideals that give meaning to the scholarly community. These common values are the glue that binds together an institution already fragmented by a host of separate disciplines, research centers, teaching programs, and personal ambitions. They keep the faculty focused on the work of discovery, scholarship, and learning despite the manifold temptations of the outside world. They help maintain high standards of student admissions and faculty appointments. They sustain the belief of scientists and scholars in the worth of what they are doing and thereby preserve academic careers as a calling, rather than just another way to earn a living.

Defending these academic values with tenacity and courage, even at the risk of financial loss, wins admiration from the students, loyalty from the faculty, respect from alumni, and trust from the public in what professors say and do. In contrast, when campus authorities sacrifice values in the search for money, their moral authority shrinks. Observing what their universities do for money, faculty members grow less mindful of their own academic responsibilities, less collegial in their relationships, less inclined to take on campus chores beyond the bare minimum required. Individual faculty members become more willing to pursue private ventures at a cost to the common enterprise.

Once profit-seeking increases throughout the university, inequities and inequalities grow more visible and pronounced, and weaker groups feel impelled to organize collectively to protect their interests. As internal norms give way, formal rules are required to ensure that the work of the institution gets done. If the university — out of fear of offending the faculty — will not act, the government will eventually intervene to protect legitimate interests. Bit by bit, therefore, commercialization promises to change the character of the institution in ways that limit its freedom and sap its effectiveness. Worst of all, the financial entanglements and commercial ventures of the university lead the public to question its motives, lose confidence in the objectivity of its scholars, and place less trust in statements by professors on subjects of importance to society.

Hard pressed for resources to meet internal demands for quality and growth, universities are understandably tempted to ignore these hazards and take the expedient course. As new opportunities for profit appear, the money to be made seems all too tangible, while the risks appear to be manageable and slight. Most profit-seeking ventures start, not with flagrant violations of principle, but with modest compromises that carry few immediate costs. The problems come so gradually and silently that their link to commercialization may not even be perceived. Like individuals who experiment with drugs, therefore, campus officials may believe that they can proceed without serious risk.

Before succumbing to these temptations, university leaders should recall the history of intercollegiate athletics and ponder the lessons it teaches. In the quest for larger audiences and more lucrative TV revenues, educational standards have gradually eroded in order to field more successful teams. Confounding expectations, the hoped-for profits have generally failed to materialize, while the damage to academic and institutional integrity has often proved severe and eventually irreversible. The same sorry process could easily be repeated in even more important areas of academic work. Once compromises have been tolerated long enough, universities will find it difficult to rebuild the public's trust, regain the faculty's respect, and return to the happier conditions of earlier times. In exchange for ephemeral gains in the continuing struggle for progress and prestige, they will have sacrificed essential values that are all but impossible to restore.


Derek Bok was president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991. He is currently 300th Anniversary University Professor. He adapted this article from his new book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, published in April by Princeton University Press.


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