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A change in degrees, but not for the better

University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education; Jennifer Washburn; Basic Books: 326 pp., $26 Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class; Ross Gregory Douthat; Hyperion: 288 pp., $24.95

June 19, 2005|Russell Jacoby | Russell Jacoby, a UCLA historian, is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age."

When sushi arrived on American campuses, a critical line was crossed. Four decades ago when I was a freshman, the dormitory cafeteria served boiled hot dogs, Chef Boyardee ravioli and canned soup -- and this was at a top-notch private university. Nowadays, students not only have deli stands, with a choice of nine kinds of bread and five kinds of mustard, but also salads with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, pasta bars, pizzas with chipotle chicken and made-to-order omelets. Where I arrived dragging a single trunk, students now show up with sound systems, computers and mini-refrigerators. Student unions, once dark and dank, twinkle with boutiques and salons.

Yet all is not well on verdant American campuses. Of course many are not verdant but consist rather of concrete structures amid parking lots. Point No. 1 about U.S. higher education: It is so vast that generalizations are virtually impossible. Harvard University in Cambridge and West Los Angeles College barely inhabit the same universe. No. 2: Harvard and other elite schools, not the colleges most students attend, attract the lion's share of attention. Ross Gregory Douthat's "Privilege," a memoir of his four years at Harvard, trades on this American obsession. Jennifer Washburn's "University, Inc." also sticks to name-brand schools, although her argument shares nothing with Douthat's.

American universities emerged from church sponsorship, government largesse and, in the later 19th century, captains of industry. Railroad magnate Leland Stanford founded Stanford University; communications entrepreneur Ezra Cornell hatched his namesake school; and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller bankrolled the University of Chicago. Big money and academic commitments did not always happily coexist, however. When a new professor in Stanford's economics department criticized railroad monopolies, the founder's widow said the fellow with the rabid ideas had to go. He went.

That was 1900, but if big money swaggered then, distrust of it ran deep in the American soul. In 1922, Upton Sinclair, a muckraker famous for his expose of the meat industry, "The Jungle," published a scathing attack on the business domination of higher education. Sinclair, who later nearly became governor of California, blasted American universities in "The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education," which boasted chapter titles such as "The University of Standard Oil" and "Interlocking Directorates." Yet the popular indignation Sinclair tapped into has long since abated. To general approval, universities and big corporations now court each other. Many schools sport the Bank of America professor of this or that. Universities vend their logos, their sports teams and their research. Almost all large universities have either technology transfer or intellectual property divisions that facilitate the marketing of academic discoveries. "Where Business Meets Science" reads the motto for such an office at UCLA.

But what does it mean for university research when business meets science? This is the question Washburn poses in her important if somewhat plodding study of the commercialization of academia. The issue is not bribery but the way in which corporations sponsor, orchestrate and sometimes censor research -- and to what extent professors willingly participate, if not double dip. One example she cites: Exxon Mobil, the main supporter of Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project at $100 million, decides with other corporate sponsors what projects to fund. A top government scientist studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska bemoans the difficulty in finding university scholars without financial ties to the oil industry, and a reporter documents how oil companies distort public debate by sponsoring academic studies minimizing the threat of global warming.

This case illustrates the depth of the corporate-university liaison and also suggests why it escapes notice. There are no smoking guns. There are few guns, period. Of course, sometimes the story gets dirtier, as when Washburn tells of pharmaceutical companies that manipulate or suppress research and professors who directly profit from the slanted research they conduct. She follows earlier studies, such as Derek Bok's "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education," but focuses mainly on the corruption of medical research. Although it does not always make for riveting reading, her book speaks to the current predicament: Giant companies stalk the land and universities hawk research and patents.

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