Fear over Lego-built chairs

April 16, 1999

The University of Washington was delighted when a big corporation stepped forward to endow a needed $2.5 million faculty chair in occupational orthopaedics.

But like an increasing number of schools being offered money from businesses for endowed faculty chairs, it found that there was a catch. The chair had to be named for the giver, the international package delivery company United Parcel Service, and UPS insisted on deciding who would occupy it.

The K-mart chain of discount stores approached West Virginia University with an offer of endowing a chair in marketing. It too set conditions. K-mart wanted its name on the position and the professor who occupied it to train store managers 30 days a year.

The University of Washington refused the UPS offer, though only after two years of negotiations. West Virginia has accepted K-mart's. These and other cases have added to a chorus of criticism about ever closer ties between industry and academia.

"What the corporations are getting is either a practical result, in terms of income to the corporation, or a propaganda result," said Leonard Minsky, director of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest. "Usually corporations like practical results, but they don't mind the propaganda. There's always a payoff."

This philosophy has opened the way to the Coca-Cola distinguished professorship in marketing at the University of Arizona, the FedEx chair of information management systems at the University of Memphis, the Taco Bell chair in hotel and restaurant administration at Washington State University, the Yahoo! chair of information systems technology at Stanford, and the Lego professorship of learning research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Generally, it costs $1 million to $2 million to endow a faculty position, which is funded by the interest on the endowment.

Not only do such distinguished schools as Stanford and MIT accept corporate money for faculty chairs; they are among the biggest recipients.

MIT has 80 chairs fully or partially endowed by corporations. Stanford has 22. With money short, the trend is showing new momentum nationwide. In 1996, the last year for which such figures are available, corporations spent nearly $300 million on endowed chairs.

The danger, Dr Minsky said, is not that the corporation's name "contaminates" the university's, but that the university gives its imprimatur to the corporation. Other critics contend that universities integrate the nature of their research with the interests of the corporations, raising credibility questions.

Dr Minsky dates this trend to the 1970s, when government policy shifted in response to heightened commercial competition from Germany and Japan, actively encouraging more corporate support for university research. He said the government in effect "turned the universities over to the corporations". A change in the patent law in 1980 allowed schools to sell the licences to their discoveries.

"The traditional paradigm is that universities are somehow independent entities dedicated to seeking the truth, no matter what the truth is, staffed by administrators and professors who are altruistic and have a sense of integrity and commitment to the truth," Dr Minsky said.

"The fact of the matter is, none of that exists any longer. All of the above has been destroyed, undermined, wiped out, and universities are basically, in almost all respects, commercial entities."

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