This worrying account of the commercial corruption of the American academy can be read as a significant text in the new American literature of self-doubt. It is a sad tale told by a journalist full of sound and fury. But its significance for UK and European universities is plain: the new commercial ethos in American higher education is allegedly in serious danger of undermining the integrity of the sector, not merely through its intrusions into science, medicine and engineering, but in its resulting relegation of teaching in general, in the humanities in particular, while the universities meanwhile sink into subservience to corporate requirements. I began the book feeling that the case was being over-egged for journalistic requirements, but came round to sharing the anxieties that Jennifer Washburn has documented.
In 1955, Jonas Salk declared that "the people" were the owners of his polio vaccine ("Could you patent the sun?"). Moreover, the openly declared policies of the major US universities forbade the patenting of biomedical research. By the 1990s, this had all become rather quaint. Salk himself was involved in developing Remune, a drug designed to help in the struggle against HIV. He was also co-founder of the company (IRC) that funded a massive trial of Remune and ended up suing the university when its researchers decided that the drug did not work, with the IRC demanding many millions in compensatory damages. The high principles of the postwar years had given way to commercial priorities in an atmosphere in which hundreds of US campuses were competing for private as well as governmental research funds.
Congress now officially encouraged university-industry collaboration and the conflicts and pitfalls had begun to be revealed. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, reacting to concern about declining US ability to compete with Japan, had permitted universities to patent federally funded research on a large scale. Universities could now derive royalties from inventions developed using taxpayers' money, the product being licensed to private companies.
Soon the universities were competing to secure scientific stars, people who could pull in money-spinning research contracts. Massive salaries began to be on offer and teaching requirements were progressively reduced as further temptation to the academic stars, while the instruction of students was more and more left to junior, non-tenured and underpaid lecturers. (In recent years university teachers have become militant and unionised in the interests of their students as well as themselves.) When an academic pronounces, you might be listening to disinterested objective research-based opinions, or you might be listening to someone subconsciously defending the investment of a company to which he and his research are wholly indebted, possibly even one that owns all the research results and withholds them from publication. It has all turned into a terrible moral mess, destructive of the values of detachment and public service.
Meanwhile, student fees have risen dramatically to meet the university's rising costs. Federal funding has disproportionately declined. On some campuses, deans are now given bonuses according to the number of paying students they recruit. Admissions standards have been compromised as universities need more fee-paying students; the competition for talent has spread downwards from faculty to graduate students and to undergraduates.
Washburn alleges that lucrative scholarships, endowed to help the poor, have begun to be offered to any able student, not according to financial need but on purely academic grounds to build up the cadres of able young researchers. His pessimistic account demonstrates how the entire value system of the American academy was turned upside down.
However, during this process, it became evident that only a few universities had benefited from the effort to market their professors'
discoveries; many had been losing money heavily. Some had overinvested, disastrously, in companies based on campus patents that simply failed to come good.
Washburn provides frightening case studies and reports the qualms of many senior US academics. The chairman of a Californian nutrition department recently presented research indicating that chocolate was good for the health of the heart: his work had been financed by Mars. But nearly three quarters of all the research cited in US industrial patents is carried out at universities, as was the work leading up to the 25 most important new drugs of the past generation. So it is in all parties' interests that universities maintain their separateness, and thus their credibility, and not become craven appendages of industry.
Anthony Smith was president of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1988 until 2005.
University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education
Author - Jennifer Washburn
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 324
Price - £15.50
ISBN - 0 465 09051 6