How US universities became IP-based capitalists

In embracing ‘cognitive capitalism’, US universities have moved from knowledge generation to income generation, argues Henry Heller

October 20, 2016
Pierre-Paul Pariseau illustration (20 October 2016)
Source: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

As modern American universities compete to amass mountains of lucrative intellectual property, it is easy to forget that it was not always like this.

The heyday of the modern US university coincided with the Cold War. The period between 1945 and 1980 was marked by massive financial support from state and federal governments and, especially, the military, enabled by the enormous wealth that post-war capitalism generated.

Higher education, in turn, made enormous contributions to boosting US economic growth and productivity through training and research in the sciences and technology. And the humanities and social sciences not only produced vast amounts of innovative knowledge, they also provided ideological support legitimising liberal democracy, capitalism and American global hegemony.

At the same time, however, the intimate financial and political ties between senior academics and university administrators, the CIA and the US military helped to foster a climate of intellectual repression and political conformity on campus. McCarthyite purges of leftists were rampant until at least the mid-1950s. This repressive political environment was reinforced by the traditional doctrine of in loco parentis, which monitored the morals of students, coupled with the alienating consequences of swelling campus enrolments and the bureaucratisation of university life.

The negative effects of all this were mitigated, though, by the fact that the university’s mission was defined as being in the public service and the knowledge created was largely in the public domain. Professors enjoyed a limited degree of freedom through the prevalence of tenure, and access to education was expanded to the lower middle class and even the working class through low tuition fees.

The upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s may be seen in retrospect as an extension of the success of the 1950s, as university enrolments and funding continued to expand, and as the social and political role of universities assumed new importance. Universities became important sites of conflict over foreign policy, racism, gender equality and democracy, both within and beyond the campus. A new ideological cosmopolitanism emerged on campus as a result of the emergence of the first serious Marxist scholarship in the US, especially through the renewal of a historical perspective in anthropology, sociology, literature and history proper. Feminists opened up new opportunities for women in academe and began to create new theory around the question of gender. Most importantly, the very purpose of academic knowledge and research was questioned, especially in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

But from the 1980s onwards, so-called academic capitalism took hold, and universities increasingly redefined their mission to be serving private business and they themselves became, as far as possible, profit-oriented in operation and objectives. And thus was born the so-called neoliberal university, marked by the decline of the humanities and social sciences, cuts in public financing, enfeeblement of faculty and student roles in governance, increases in tuition fees, reductions in tenured faculty and increasing use of adjunct professors. Capping off these changes are the growth of for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and the growth of mainly business-backed massive open online courses, which augur a decline in the need for permanent faculty and investments in fixed capital.

The influence of business over US universities has always loomed large. But universities in their heyday were able to assert a measure of autonomy from the market, and this almost certainly contributed to their creativity. It is not that intellectual progress has altogether ceased. It has been the neoliberal period that has seen a deepening of the cosmopolitanism of the humanities and social sciences, with the prominence of French theory and the rise of cultural studies, post-colonial thought and a third wave of sophisticated feminist and post-feminist thought.

But a big problem is posed by universities’ embrace of what we might call a cognitive capitalism, which pursues new forms of knowledge that can be more or less immediately commodified as intellectual property: patents, inventions, copyrights and even trademarks. Driven by the need for revenue and prestige, US universities applied for more than 5,000 patents at the turn of the millennium, for instance, compared with a few score in the 1970s.

In an early phase of capitalism, such rights undoubtedly helped innovation. Generally, they were relatively specialised and the litigation that arose did not impose inordinate costs. Today, claims of intellectual property rights cover just about everything, and the system is riddled by conflicting claims. Universities argue that the privatisation of new knowledge in this way is creating new links with private industry. But the economic progress of the 1950s and 1960s resulted not from intellectual property rights but rather from earlier public investment in science and technology.

Rather than facilitating the spread and application of knowledge, such claims create an atmosphere of exclusivity and secrecy. Litigation is becoming more important than creativity. Indeed, the spread of intellectual property rights – which constitute an increasingly large share of property in the US and other advanced capitalist economies – will actually obstruct future progress by promoting fragmentation of information, duplication of effort, secrecy and lawsuits.

Historically, science has been a collaborative endeavour in which large numbers of individuals contribute to a cumulative and collective process. This ethos is at antipodes to a system of intellectual property that depends on a single agent claiming credit for the entire process.

Paradoxically, as the role of universities in American life becomes ever more important, their futures seem more and more in doubt.

Henry Heller is professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Canada. His book The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016 is published today by Pluto Press.

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