American University Research

University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education. By Jennifer Washburn. Basic Books, 2005. 326 pages. $26.00.

University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education is a necessary book but also a sobering, even depressing one. If you’re concerned about your health, your education or your country, you won’t enjoy what you read in these pages…but you should read University, Inc.

Science is the reason. While numerous theorists since World War II have worked to theorize and complicate the process of knowledge creation in science—Thomas Kuhn’s work comes to mind immediately—the ideal of science as a disinterested arbiter of truth remains. In this vision of what science should be, truth matters. We trust scientific reports because of this aura of dedication, even purity. In these pages Jennifer Washburn documents just how tainted science has become.

Its transformation has not come through malicious intent. Indeed, as Washburn explains, at many points throughout this transformation, science and education have been changed with the best of intentions. As Washburn points out in her historical overview of higher education articulated in the book’s second chapter, scientific research in this country has long had two fairly distinct mandates. One was to pursue pure, abstract research. The other was to engage in practical research, especially applied research that would help the people in a university’s region, as has long been the case with the nation’s agricultural colleges.

However, in progressive steps since World War II—and especially since the 1970s when economic downturns led to a general increase in federal investment in science as a way to spark economic recovery—academic research has shifted not just to the applied and practical but also to a market model. What this means, Washburn explains, is a number of things. First, following the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, rather than new ideas flowing freely from universities outward to the community, universities have emphasized research that can be patented—and have retained the patents on these discoveries. This means that universities shift to what Washburn calls “Market-Model U.” In itself, this is not all bad. As someone who has taught in state colleges, I can attest to the waste found in some systems and the inefficiency and the dated slowness with which things are executed. If it were possible to infuse just the efficiency and pace of the finest private enterprises, this would be a good thing.

It hasn’t been possible to do only that, though, Washburn argues. Instead, as federal funding for higher education dried up, universities sought funding elsewhere, producing an increased emphasis on corporate funding. Washburn documents a second effect which is how this has chilled academic research. Stories of graduate students who, due to contractual obligations, can’t share their work, even with their own professors, should make readers blink, as should the anecdotes about faculty members stealing student work. Greed drives dishonesty in Washburn’s account.

This leads to a third damning trend: bias. Any bias in a scientific study should be disturbing, but Chapter 5, in which Washburn documents the systematic distortion of medical studies, should make readers more than a little queasy. These distortions range from the relatively benign (reporting a test drug has a positive effect when it has little or none) to the literally deadly. Deaths have been covered up, as have risks of death, so that drugs can be brought to market for profit. The conclusion is clear: whatever the ideal of science once was, it is not strong enough to stand up to temptation. Self-interest rules.

To be frank, the later chapters are not as strong as these early ones exposing abuses. The attempts to shape new Silicon Valleys and revive regions may fail, but their intentions are good and not necessarily driven by greed (except for prestige and regional pride). Washburn’s discussion of academic employment patterns is not bad, but it is insufficient. What’s more, that she really isn’t that concerned about these is witnessed by the final chapter: all the suggestions for reform focus on intellectual property and clinical research. The attempts to change the nature of education through the use of superstar education may repel some, but it needs to be put into a much larger and more detailed context. It seems more a symptom of the Information Age and what podcasts and computers offer than of the market model per se. How, for example, does MIT’s choice to put its courses online for free fit with this? In other words, the changes detailed in this book are part of a wider redefinition of the ownership of knowledge, a shift linked to everything from music downloads to Wikipedia, and needs to be put in that context.

While my objections matter, and I wish the second half of the book were better (richer, fuller, more inclusive and complex), the expose that fills University, Inc.’s chapters on science and medicine struck fear in my heart, and I suspect they’ll do the same for other readers.

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