Higher Ed, Inc.

Dear Commons Community,

Ruth Perry and Yarden Katz, professors at MIT and Harvard respectively, have an article this morning in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled Higher Education, Inc. that examines how some universities are becoming “cogs in corporate machines.”  Below is an excerpt:

“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.)”

Later in the article, Perry and Katz also remind readers that:

“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.”




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