[Marxism] How the university became a profit-generating cog in the corporate machine
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Wed Oct 10 10:51:59 MDT 2018
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
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
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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