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Chronicle of Higher Education, OCTOBER 07, 2018  PREMIUM
Higher Ed, Inc.
How the university became a profit-generating cog in the corporate machine
By Ruth Perry and Yarden Katz

In 1972, when one of us (Ruth Perry) first came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the federal government — and especially the Department of Defense — significantly subsidized MIT’s budget. Faculty members and students objected to how this funding changed research priorities and slanted educational objectives. After the end of the Vietnam War, MIT increasingly turned to corporations for funding. The change was not salutary. Federal funds had trickled down better; those Defense Department dollars subsidized the teaching of literature and philosophy as well as projects in the arts. Opponents of the Pentagon’s militaristic research agenda nevertheless thought it was right and proper that the federal government should support higher education beyond the narrow scope of applied research.

Corporate funding was neither so generous nor so far-reaching. There was less tolerance for educational purposes, and instead of a broad mandate for the public good (or even the rhetoric for it), these new sponsors focused narrowly on their own business interests. Moreover, corporations expected quicker results and had little interest in basic research. Those of us who had objected to the corrosive effects of Pentagon funding were surprised, perhaps naïvely, to realize that corporate money stifled free inquiry even more than federal dollars had.

Fifty years later, universities have been transformed to run like corporations, top-down and hierarchical, relying on impersonal bureaucracies rather than collegial debate to make decisions. Research is viewed instrumentally, as it is at the corporations that sponsor it.

The line between education and business has all but dissolved. Corporations lease campus land for their commercial buildings and help direct research in campus labs. The atmosphere encourages students to work on their "pitches" for corporate jobs rather than identify problematic assumptions. Students’ imaginations are trained to develop new products and open new markets rather than to think about what would constitute human fulfillment. We end up reproducing the view that the "real world" is inevitably one of competition, anxiety, isolation, and fear.

MIT, like its peer institutions, has formed many corporate partnerships. The word "partner" deserves some attention. Used as a legal term in the 18th century, "partner" has always covered a multitude of sins. The legal meaning was invented to create a legal entity to share profit but avoid personal liability. Partnership continues to mean what it meant then: an association whose precise terms are hidden, but whose public aspect is neutral, professional, and sanitized.

MIT’s partnerships are generally negotiated confidentially, without input from the greater campus community, and have become normalized over time. Last year, IBM committed $240 million to build an artificial-intelligence research laboratory at MIT, whose goal is to commercialize AI research for various industries (including defense). This corporate-academic hybrid gives IBM access to the computer-science and brain-and-cognitive-sciences faculties, as well as to students. (And it is only one of the corporate partnerships that are part of MIT’s "Intelligence Quest" initiative.)

“The revolution is over, and the administrators have won.”

IBM is bound to have immense power in shaping MIT’s research in this area, and to advance its own agenda by capitalizing on the knowledge and labor of students and staff members. MIT also partnered with the weapons manufacturer Raytheon on a "cybersecurity" project that will, according to Raytheon’s vice president, help MIT "focus their ongoing research and ensure it can be applied to our real-world problems." Some of Raytheon’s "real-world problems" include manufacturing the bombs that are being used by a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition to demolish Yemen. Yet such "partnerships" are presented as if there were no tension between the corporate agenda and MIT’s professed mission to work toward "the betterment of humankind."

When one of us (Yarden Katz) first came to MIT in 2007, corporate partnerships were already transforming academic inquiry. Its discourse had become drenched in the public-relations-speak of "impact" and "innovation," which all too often means funneling the labor of a broad, and generally publicly funded, academic collective toward the creation of private wealth for the few.

This phenomenon is manifest in the relentless pursuit of "intellectual property." Universities embark on a kind of patent colonialism, a race to parcel off the largest pieces of collectively developed knowledge and technology for their own start-ups and industry partners. Whole wings of the university are mobilized to rehearse talking points in the service of legal battles, such as the one waged over patents to the genome-editing system known as Crispr. Faculty members and administrators have gone to great lengths to promote MIT’s sanitized history of genome-editing, while marginalizing other scientists’ contributions. The Crispr affair has played out as a media spectacle, in which the university drew on its public-relations offices and cheerleading media outlets such as MIT Technology Review and STAT to broadcast its narrative.

In the public picture of science that has emerged, the framework of intellectual property is taken for granted; the living world is there to be parceled into privately owned chunks. But biology cannot be so easily divided among powerful owners without compromising the collective nature of scientific inquiry. The truth that genome-editing may not have single "inventors" is lost. The result is a profoundly anti-scientific discourse that undermines the very idea of scientific collaboration.

Yet such propaganda is now simply part of academic science. Media outlets that cover science play a major role in this distortion. As the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin put it, most press coverage crafts an image of science as an objective pursuit, an instrument for unending progress to the benefit of all. Criticism of how the scientific enterprise actually works and affects people’s lives is nearly absent. Scientists (particularly at elite institutions) aren’t innocently co-opted into these schemes but are skillful participants, who, as Nelkin wrote in her 1987 book, Selling Science, "employ increasingly sophisticated public-relations techniques to assure that their interests are represented with maximum media appeal."

The space for seeking un-pragmatic truths on campus is shrinking. It is collapsing under the weight of marketing and markets.

In the past, groups like Science for the People, born during the resistance to the Vietnam War, protested the accelerating corporatization of academic science. Sheldon Krimsky, writing for the group’s magazine in 1985, concluded that it would soon be hard to find biomedical researchers on campus without ties to the drug industry. Krimsky was prescient. Scientists are now often expected to be entrepreneurs. Through intellectual-property agreements, universities fight even on behalf of their corporate partners. The University of California at Los Angeles, for instance, has been helping the pharmaceutical company Medivation (now owned by Pfizer) obtain a patent in India for a prostate-cancer drug originally developed at UCLA. The move is designed to block the manufacture of cheaper generics, meaning that a prostate-cancer patient in India may have to pay more than $130,000 for a year’s supply. A university administrator stated that the University of California’a "regents are obligated to use their best efforts to keep the patents licensed to Medivation from lapsing."

"Conflict of interest" does not capture the current state of affairs, which is better described as one of shared interests among universities, corporations, and the military. Working with big pharma, launching start-ups, and obtaining Pentagon grants are what make an elite American scientist.

MIT has helped to normalize a model of research that exemplifies the knotty military-industrial-academic complex. The MIT Media Lab is funded by "member companies" who, in exchange, receive intellectual-property rights to the laboratory’s work. The members list includes powerful corporations from nearly every ethically challenged industry: fossil fuels (ExxonMobil), big pharma (Novartis, Hoffman-La Roche, Takeda), big tech (Google, Twitter, IBM, Intel, Cisco), weapons developers (Northrop Grumman), and big media (21st Century Fox, Comcast, Verizon).

The belief that scientific inquiry is always disinterested, apolitical, and value-free is so entrenched that some academics still believe their work is uncompromised by corporate and military ties. Yet in so many areas that has proved illusory. While some tech workers have resisted assignments to aid military research — a protest by employees at Google forced the company to abandon a program that helped the Pentagon use machine learning to improve drone strikes — academics regularly work on Pentagon projects whose goals and long-term effects are not disclosed.

The university’s business model entangles it in compromises that are rarely discussed on campus. For instance, the Broad Institute, a joint venture of MIT and Harvard, has licensed its Crispr genome-editing patent to DuPont for use in agriculture. This was spun by the institute as "democratic" licensing. It is hard to square this rhetoric with DuPont’s size and dominance, and its decades-long record of polluting the environment with PFOA, a toxic chemical that has since been linked to various cancers — the very diseases that the Broad Institute claims it is seeking to understand and alleviate. Thus universities routinely have ties to corporations that have interests and policies antithetical to their stated educational and ethical missions.

In 2012, the Broad Institute received a $32.5-million commitment from Seth Klarman to launch the Klarman Cell Observatory. Klarman is manager of the Baupost Group, a hedge fund that holds much of the debt of Puerto Rico. As the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria and suffocated by these financiers, there were campus protests against Baupost across the country. Students at universities whose endowments are invested in the hedge fund — such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — called on their institutions to divest. The administration and students at MIT have remained silent.

The system that produces these phenomena is deeply entrenched, so much so as to seem beyond amendment. As one commentator declared recently, "The revolution is over, and the administrators have won." Some students, working at the margins, are the exceptions. But it is easier for the administration to promote start-up culture than it is to listen to these voices of dissent.

While the effects of corporate "partnering" on science and engineering are perhaps the easiest to see, the business model also casts a shadow on the humanities and social sciences. The profit motive is not a good model for either research or education. It commodifies thought and emphasizes what can be quickly done and what is "hot" or "trendy" over the thorough, painstaking work that contributes to knowledge. It fosters competitiveness rather than cooperation, puts constraints on speech about funders and their business interests, and encourages cynical materialism. It turns students into consumers and forces faculty members to offer what "sells" rather than what contributes to a meaningful education. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as commodities and discuss how to "market" themselves. Attending university becomes more of an opportunity for résumé-enhancement than educational enrichment.

Recently the Stevens Point campus of the University of Wisconsin proposed to cut 13 of its humanities majors, "including English, art, history, philosophy, and foreign languages." Language is the repository of our most subtle thoughts and noble feelings, the medium that stores our common knowledge and folklore — but no one has figured out how to commodify it yet. Closing research departments in the humanities is also an attack on labor. It converts programs with tenured-faculty slots into "service departments," based on even more precarious contract labor, that teach "basic skills" to students in more strategically profitable programs. And so, another crack where academic resistance could take place is sealed shut.

The space for seeking un-pragmatic truths on campus is shrinking. It is collapsing under the weight of marketing and markets. Our hope is not to convince those in power that these trends are real. Nor is it to add to the literature of laments for a mythologized age in which the university was enlightened. Rather, we hope faculty members can learn from and make alliances with those students, community members, and colleagues at neighboring institutions who want to resist the corporatization of academic research. Together we can make more room for different kinds of thinking on our campuses.

Ruth Perry is a professor on the literature faculty at MIT. Yarden Katz is a departmental fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School.
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