Commercializing the university
Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education, by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 424 pp.
Sixty years ago, in Science, the Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush defined the context that would guide the federal government’s massive investment in research capacity. After arguing that “industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity,” Bush proclaimed that the nation’s leading universities were the right home for large-scale scientific research projects. “It is chiefly in these institutions that scientists may work in an atmosphere which is relatively free from the adverse pressure of convention, prejudice, or commercial necessity,” Bush wrote. “At their best they provide the scientific worker with a strong sense of solidarity and security, as well as a substantial degree of personal intellectual freedom. All of these factors are of great importance in the development of new knowledge, since much of new knowledge is certain to arouse opposition because of its
Today, however, Bush’s description of the U.S. university as a free academy untainted by commercial necessity is largely an anachronism. The hallmarks of change are simply cataloged: the 1980 passage of the Bayh-Dole legislation that allowed (some would say, mandated) universities to own, develop, and profit from the federally funded research performed by their faculty; the rising dominance of a handful of commercial publishers who have extracted substantial profits from their near monopoly of scholarly publications in the sciences; the increasing amount of federal funding going to an even smaller set of research universities; and the insistence that the dissemination of research results wait until the intellectual property rights of the university and the principal investigator are fully secured. It is a world in which principal investigators are regularly reminded not to say too much in public or even in private among colleagues lest they violate the nondisclosure agreements that increasingly govern the dissemination of scientific results.
What remains, of course, is the federal government’s direct support of universities and their research interests and capacities— and that too is an important part of the story.
Bush and his intentions notwithstanding, what the federal government has created—through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) along with the often larger research contracts proffered by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy—is a massive market for research in which the growth of real revenue has become the strategic imperative of every major research university. The result is that the 60 or so largest research universities that win most of these awards have become market enterprises, organized and rewarded as though they were commercial endeavors.
The impact that this rise of market forces has had on the U.S. university is examined by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Their work is an important though too often meandering exploration of how changing values combined with escalating opportunities to recast how and why universities and their faculties engage in scientific research. The villain of the piece—though Slaughter and Rhoades would probably argue that their tale has no villains—is the neoliberal state that “focuses not on social welfare for the citizenry as a whole but on enabling individuals as economic actors. To that end, neoliberal states move resources from social welfare to production functions.” The result is what the authors call “regime change.” Pushed aside are the academic values and the organizational rules that the sociologist Robert Merton gave voice to in the 1950s and that Bush championed in Science, the Endless Frontier: a way of thinking that stressed knowledge as a public good, that supported university autonomy, and that precluded scientists from having a direct stake in research outcomes. What has emerged instead is an “academic capitalist knowledge regime” that restricts the flow of knowledge precisely because scientific results bring economic advantage to the universities and the faculty responsible for their production. “The academic capitalism knowledge regime,” they write, “values knowledge privatization and profit taking in which institutions, inventor faculty, and corporations have claims that come before those of the public.”
Academic Capitalism and the New Economy is at its best when documenting the changing attitudes and rules governing the use of intellectual property. Chapters on patent policies, disagreements over copyrights, and the new limits being placed on student roles in the production of scientific knowledge are important contributions in their own right. The authors have an enviable knack for assembling and then navigating the often tangled legal disputes that now accompany attempts to decide who owns what. There is also an important discussion, based on interviews with a wide variety of faculty, documenting how the shift to the academic capitalist knowledge regime is becoming an integral part of the everyday discourse of working scientists.
The book unfortunately is marred by some distracting gaps. For example, the authors are apparently unaware of Charles Goldman’s and William Massy’s 2001 book, The PhD Factory: Training and Employment of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United States, which includes an analysis that supports their argument. That work documents how the surplus of Ph.D.s in the sciences can best be explained by the actions of federally funded principal investigators who care more about their expanding publication lists than about the future career opportunities of the graduate students working in their labs. The PhD Factory suggests that money and patent rights are not the only currency in the market for research. Although the patent policies and licensing income that flowed after the passage of Bayh-Dole are important to the sponsoring university’s bottom line as well as the investigator’s financial wellbeing, it turns out that the volume of publication is just as important. In the actual workings of the market for sponsored research, a team’s publication record becomes an important index of future productivity and hence access to the financial rewards associated with Bayh-Dole.
Slaughter and Rhoades’s discussion of academic entrepreneurship is similarly incomplete. It would have benefited from a better understanding of the process by which scholars win more time and freedom to pursue their research while the university administrators who pick up the tasks that the faculty have abandoned (like advising) build entrepreneurial enterprises within their universities.
At the same time, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy largely misses the very real differences that NIH, NSF, and DOD funds introduce into the mix. NIH and DOD, for example, add indirect costs to a total grant, whereas NSF makes indirect costs a part of the competitive package. The result is that NSF grants do not allow the same level of cost recovery. NSF is also likely to look askance at senior investigators including their own term-time salaries in their grants, further reducing the importance to the institution of NSF funds.
Finally, the authors were apparently unaware of the campaigns that the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries mounted to explain to universities and their faculty the realities introduced by changing patent and copyright rules and opportunities. These campaigns were important examples of the kind of regime shift that is the focus of their book.
The editors at Johns Hopkins University Press also failed Slaughter and Rhoades. Readers interested in the book as a whole should begin with the summary chapter (chapter 12), which provides the best overview of their theory of academic capitalism and the new economy. The book’s first two chapters spend too much time regurgitating the authors’ previous work. The writing also contains off-putting vocabulary, including commodification, marketizing, and profitizing, all of which are used to diminish things the authors do not like.
Had the authors had some of the grace and humor that embellishes David Kirp’s new book, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, the resulting volume would have been more readable and, one suspects, more enduring. On the other hand, Kirp could have benefited from Slaughter and Rhoades’s understanding of processes and contexts. The bottom line is that the full story of how the rise of markets has recast universities as market enterprises has yet to be told.
Robert Zemsky ([email protected]) is professor and chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. tendency to challenge current beliefs or practice.”