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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2001

The Intrusion of Big Business into Academia's Ivory Tower

Finn Makela

Campus, Inc.: Corporate Power in the Ivory Tower

Geoffry D. White with Flannery C. Hauck, eds. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000; 469 pp; cloth $35 US.
In Campus, Inc. Geoffry White and Flannery Hauck bring together essays by an impressive array of American education and social activists. Highlights include pieces by Ralph Nader and David Noble, as well as an interview with renowned academic rabble rouser Noam Chomsky. The principal theme of the collection is summarized in the subtitle: Corporate Power in the Ivory Tower.

There are a couple of reasons why this volume should be of particular interest to members of the Canadian academic community. First, the American post-secondary system has included private universities since its inception. Many of the situations we can expect to face over the next few years, as private universities attempt to set up shop in Canada, have already been experienced in some form by our colleagues south of the border.

Second, Campus, Inc. contains more than just insightful analysis. Many of the articles and essays are personal accounts by activists on the front lines of the struggle to keep education as a public good. Academics can stand to learn a lot from such accounts — while research and critique are important tools for change, we tend to get hung up on them and forget that they are most effective when complemented by action "on the ground."

Furthermore, while it is certainly important to put theory into practice, it is equally important that our theory itself be informed by practice. In this regard, the book's final chapter "Muckraking 101: Advice and Resources for Campus Organizers" is of particular relevance.

An example of the insightful analysis can be found in "Dead Souls: The Aftermath of Bayh-Dole." Here, Leonard Minsky, executive director and cofounder (with David Noble and Ralph Nader) of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, identifies the passage of some amendments to the patents' act by the U.S. Congress in 1980 as a crucial step in the trend towards corporatizing universities.

"The Bayh-Dole Act," as these amendments came to be called, established ownership of individual institutions over research (reconfigured as "intellectual property") generated using public funds. This may not seem like such a bad thing to Canadians, since our universities are (or have been, until recently) public institutions.

In fact, the argument has been made that it is better that public institutions have ownership over research generated using public dollars than for it to rest solely in the hands of individual researchers, who don't necessarily have the public good in mind.

But as Minsky explains, the real motor behind Bayh-Dole was private industry, which gained access to publicly funded research through licensing agreements, or "technology transfer." He says: "Its main purpose was to transfer effective ownership of new inventions and technologies generated in university-owned facilities to corporations through licensing." (p. 97)

Since Bayh-Dole, "technology transfer" has gained currency as a euphemism for ceding public research to private interests. In Canadian universities, the trend has been to set up special offices to manage the intellectual property generated on-site. The purpose of these offices is clear in the final report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research, which states: "(t)hese operations are often referred to as Business Development Offices, University-Industry Liaison Offices or Technology Transfer Offices. For the purposes of this report, we will refer to them as commercialization offices."

In addition to the obvious problems of funneling citizens' tax dollars into the coffers of private corporations, there is a more subtle, but equally pernicious aspect to the intellectual property regimes encouraged by Bayh-Dole and the Expert Panel. Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie's contribution, "Professors Going Pro," describes it as follows:

"Universities ... have come to follow much the same practices as corporations with regard to patents. An employee makes a discovery that leads to a patent and gets a bonus or, in the case of faculty, a share of any royalties. The organization owns the invention and disposes of it as it will, without any consultation with the employee/faculty." (p. 143)

It reminds me of the old adage about people looking like their pets — the more universities get involved with corporations, the more they begin to look like them. Of course, in both cases it's clear who's holding the leash.

One way in which the corporatization of universities can be countered is through workplace organizing. Part Five of Campus, Inc., "Education With Representation: Union Organizing on the Campus, Incorporated" includes several articles documenting the success of faculty associations and other unions in fighting the corporate takeover of their institutions.

In "Perils of the Knowledge Industry" Jeff Lustig describes how the California State University faculty association resisted the corporatization of their 22 campuses.

Lustig identifies three ways in which CSU was being corporatized: first through realignment of the valuation of research towards business objectives; second through structural transformation — the transfer of power from collegial bodies of governance like the university senate to a top-down corporate-style hierarchy; and, finally through the shift in the function of the university from the site of teaching, learning and research, to a site of capital accumulation.

The interesting thing about the militant faculty response to these changes is that it came from rank and file members rather than the leadership, who took a conciliatory stance. A new leadership was elected, and what followed were "informational picket lines, demonstrations, and teach-ins" that ultimately succeeded in holding off and reversing some of the trends. (p. 332)

Campus, Inc. is organized in-to to six parts, each of which contains articles and essays dealing with a particular aspect of corporatization. At first, the parts seem disconnected, but as one works through the book, their logic unfolds. The movement is from general trends at the top of the institutional hierarchy (i.e. state laws, boards of governors, etc.) towards progressively more specific examples of grassroots responses. Ultimately, after having read Part Six, I felt ready to begin tackling the problems identified in Part One.

My complaints about the book are minor, and should be easily solved in what I hope will be future editions. First, the graphic design of the cover is atrocious — despite the requisite platitudes about a book not being judged by its cover, there should really be no excuse for the amateurish mess of stock photographs and fonts that smears the front of this volume.

My second criticism is somewhat more substantial for a book that will no doubt be read by academics: there's no index! Good luck finding that pithy quote on academic freedom for your next faculty association meeting.

Finn Makela recently completed his MA in philosophy at Carleton University. He currently works for the Canadian Federation of Students.