[Marxism] How the university became a profit-generating cog in the corporate machine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
remained silent.

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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list