Is truth lost if purse strings are attached?

Universities in the Marketplace
December 12, 2003

Every October, in welcoming new students to Wolfson College, Cambridge, I try to convey to them the value and importance of what they come to university to do. Universities, I tell them, play a distinctive and vital role in society. The world needs highly educated leaders, skilled in research and analysis, who will take a creative approach to defining and solving problems, and who, more simply, will be driven by curiosity to gain a better truthful understanding of where we stand in relation to the universe, our physical and biological environments, social, economic and political organisations, and the rich diversity of human cultures. Besides being intellectually challenging, scholarship and research is best done in institutions that, over the years, have developed special techniques and languages for tackling such matters, and that foster academic and, to a degree, non-material values.

Universities perform best if they are allowed great freedom in what they do, whether it relates to the selection of scholars and students, or how they teach, or what research they decide to do. But they also need resources to pay for their activities. Inevitably, this introduces a tension between them and society more generally. Academics cannot be aloof: they have, besides a commitment to the abstract pursuit of knowledge, to recognise that they contribute to society in many other ways, by fitting people for work outside the university, for example, or by ensuring that research has relevance and applicability to broader social and economic goals.

The wellbeing of universities is thus determined as much by those outside them as by those within. So questions of what universities do, who has access to them, and how they are supported, remain matters of constant, and often uncomfortable, negotiation between them and a huge range of external interests. These latter include, but are not exhausted by, the state, businesses, professional bodies, philanthropic foundations, alumni and individual benefactors. As Nicholas Butler, a long-serving president of Columbia University, put it in 1902: "In these modern days the university is not apart from the activities of the world, but in them and of them. It deals with real problems and it relates itself to life as it is." There is nothing particularly new about this since even medieval universities existed for a clear purpose of serving religion and providing the king with clerks. In a sense, therefore, universities have always been in some sort of marketplace.

In this excellent and beautifully written book, Derek Bok, who was president of Harvard University from 1971-91 and now chairs the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard, has taken a fresh look at this age-old problem and set it firmly in the contemporary context. He asks the question, "Is everything in a university for sale if the price is right?" He fears that the answer is all too often "yes". For whatever reasons (and it is among the many virtues of this book that Bok's lucid thinking constantly reveals the complexity of the issues discussed), universities today are faced with ever-increasing demands on their services, and ever-greater challenges in mustering support for them. Gone are the simple ways (if, indeed, they ever existed) of funding through endowment, state subvention, fees and alumni support. Rather, universities are forced to raise a large part of the money they need by selling themselves more literally than ever before. This is not necessarily bad in itself, but commercialisation, in the narrow sense of that word, of universities can threaten key academic values and hence, in the longer term, destroy the very purposes for which they exist.

Bok elaborates his argument by looking at three principal areas of commercialisation in American universities: sport, scientific research and education. He sees athletics as the oldest form of commercialisation, going back to sponsorship of the first Harvard-Yale boat race in 1852. Since then, when crews were offered expenses, "lavish prizes" and "unlimited alcohol" to race on Lake Winnipesaukee, generating publicity for the magnate who had business interests in the area, sport has become big business on many campuses. Football and basketball especially attract large audiences and generate millions of dollars of revenue, besides raising the profile of colleges and, in more recent times, allegedly helping to secure access to higher education of disadvantaged social groups.

But Bok shows that the results have not been altogether happy: success in sport requires expensive facilities, coaches demand, and get, higher pay than college presidents, academic standards in admissions and content of courses are compromised, and sporting students get a raw deal, educationally (because their constant training deprives them of normal academic and social life) and financially (because they receive modest scholarships rather than the higher salaries their entertainment value should command). The result for many institutions is a preoccupation with something that is not central to their purpose and which brings them no clear net gains.

This baleful effect of athletics on American higher education may seem remote from British experience, although the example is germane to other activities. However, Bok's discussion of corporate sponsorship of research and of universities' efforts to sell educational courses and to trade on their names, touch issues that are very much alive in the UK today. Here again, his masterly evenhandedness in dealing with ownership of intellectual property, secrecy, conflict of interest, confusion and distortion of scientific results shows that these matters are not capable of easy discussion or resolution.

There is no reason private enterprise should not support university research and not gain from it. But difficulties arise when, perhaps quite subtly at first, academic values are distorted to meet market demand. Thus, research copyrighted or patented at too early a stage stifles creativity among academics and may deliver to private hands monopolistic profit from basic knowledge that should be freely available to anyone. This applies particularly to research in the life sciences where a breakthrough in pure knowledge can lead, eventually, to a lucrative drug. Sometimes findings may be suppressed if they are not to the liking of the sponsor, or the interests of the sponsor may influence the design and course of research.

Conflict of interest may arise between academics and their universities, and these are not always clear until after some damage to one party or the other has occurred. In these situations, the integrity or career of the researcher may be destroyed and the reputation of the university besmirched. All of these things have happened, though Bok reminds us that academics are pretty robust in dealing with them. Indeed, he quotes evidence showing that strong scientific groups in receipt of considerable corporate or private finance are also among the most vigorous and productive in publication of their results, and that rows eventually right injustices.

Similarly, it can be argued that pedagogic and social benefits, as well as financial gain, can be got from selling courses. Universities reach a mass market with very little addition of overhead and potentially very substantial economic gain. But once more what seems unexceptional to begin with becomes fraught when basic assumptions underlying the strategy prove unfounded. Successful courses for use beyond the traditional classroom and tutorial are rarely to be had at marginal cost in either personal or cash terms. Teaching is not just a question of putting something on film or disc and selling it, however plausible the demand might be. The market is fickle and demanding and will rage against providers who deliver shoddy goods or fail to meet expectations. Large-scale investment is needed in advance of sales, which may not come, or which may not be sustained over a long enough period to repay the capital outlay; and there may be essential follow-up services that cannot easily be provided, however much the academic community is pressed into service. This high-risk activity may well warp the basic educational purposes of the university, leading to demoralisation of its staff and students and loss of hard-won reputation.

In the second half of the book, Bok turns to the question of what should be done. He argues that there are no easy solutions to any of the questions he has posed. Rather, the case is made for urgent and explicit consideration of the issues he raises, a greater willingness to recognise that problems exist and that there is a need to frame sensible policies to deal with them. Continuing drift will not do, serving neither the best interests of universities themselves, nor of the societies they serve. Bok knows only too well that addressing these matters collectively will be a difficult task, but his shrewd and elegant argument leaves no doubt that it must be taken up.

Universities might draw some comfort from the fact that, although in different and more imperative guise, they are not strangers to the fundamental problems set out in this book. Academics by vocation stand for integrity in education, and they are quite good at navigating the shoals that lie between the unending quest for truth and whatever demands the so-called real world might make.

The coat of arms of Wolfson College draws from those of its founder, Cambridge University, and from the late Sir Isaac Wolfson, a major benefactor. From the university comes the ermine and two Cambridge lions, which gave the fledgling college continuity with a distinguished scholarly past. From Sir Isaac Wolfson's arms the college has taken a little bell. It is said, even as he became the 20th century's grandest retailer, Wolfson always knew that in essence his calling was that of the itinerant pedlar, summoning working girls with the tinkling of a bell to tempt them with a tray of ribbons and laces to trim their party dresses and adorn their bonny hair. We might emulate this sense of vocation, with its dash of humility, as universities face the awesome prospect of education and research in Tony Blair's new world. Wolfson College has also taken over Sir Isaac's motto: "Ring True". Universities, in the marketplace, should do just that.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge, and provost, the Gates Cambridge Trust.

Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education

Author - Derek Bok
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 233
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 691 11412 9

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