The issue has also gained traction on Capitol Hill, as federal lawmakers question the accumulated endowments in the face of ever-increasing tuition. Republican senator Charles E. Grassley, of Iowa, has long supported a mandate for the wealthiest colleges to spend at least five percent of their endowments each year, the same regulations applied to private foundations. But even his advocacy appeared to wane, saying at a September 8 round-table discussion in Washington with college presidents and policy experts that fixing the problem would require “a massive amount of legislation” — a convenient excuse for not crossing the higher-education lobbyists.
Distorting the mission
Perhaps no more stark evidence of the corporatization of institutions of higher education exists than the trend — turning rapidly into a frenzied race — by which research universities are rushing their scientific discoveries to the Patent Office and then licensing their new technology to profit-making companies. Silicon Valley science and technology writer Janet Rae-Dupree wrote an op-ed for the September 7 New York Times that decried the phenomenon primarily because, she wrote, it “has . . . distorted the fundamental mission of universities.” “Today’s universities,” she warns, “function more like corporate research laboratories.”
This is a particularly threatening problem for the world of science, because, for the past century or more, much of the cutting-edge, basic scientific work has come out of the minds and laboratories of American academies. While corporate researchers were tasked with coming up with new, patentable products, such as pharmaceuticals and silicon chips, academic researchers were busy trying to design experiments to answer more fundamental questions, such as the basic nature of time, space, and matter. Indeed, researchers in the corporate world were able to build on the elementary discoveries by academic scientists and develop patentable commercial products. (The discovery of DNA’s structure in the 1950s by academic scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, for example, paved the way for a vast number of treatments and procedures in the commercial world, not to mention uses of DNA in law enforcement. Yet neither of the two discoverers ever sought to patent their ground-breaking discovery.)
The bottom line is that far too much campus-based scientific research is conducted by our universities not in a belief that it will further mankind’s knowledge of the physical world and universe, but rather because it holds out the possibility of making money. Is this a healthy development for either the academy or the state of knowledge?
Nice hotels, but serious education?
The prominence of monetary concerns has not gone unnoticed by academics. “I have no problem with universities’ trying to make money,” Steven Pinker, a leading evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, wrote in an e-mail. “My concern is whether they will subvert the very mission of a university in doing so. Will the Gulf-state franchise campuses teach evolutionary biology, modern philosophy, comparative religion, accurate history? Will patent-generating molecular biology starve traditional ‘birdsy-woodsy’ biology (including evolution, ecology, and systematics), which is indispensable both intellectually and practically (e.g., in assessing the consequences of climate change)? Will the terror of ever getting sued turn administrations into cowards who are unwilling to stand up for the right to express unpopular beliefs?”