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United Progressive Alumni : UPA Features : Review of Leasing the Ivory Tower


Review of "Leasing the Ivory Tower"

Dave Jansson snapshot by David Jansson '89, Cornell

The Phantom Menace

In 1995, United Parcel Service approached the University of Washington with an offer to establish a $2.5 million research chair in occupational orthopedics at the university's medical school. However, as the Wall Street Journal reported in February of 1998, this corporate philanthropy came with some very specific strings attached: UPS made it clear that they intended to have a particular researcher, Stanley Bigos, appointed to the endowed chair and granted tenure. Bigos' research pins the blame for workers' injuries on poor attitudes, rather than ergonomic or safety factors. UPS has fought recent government efforts to establish ergonomic standards in the workplace, and certainly wouldn't mind supporting further research that may help dilute or derail such standards.

While the negotiations between UPS and the University of Washington concluded without reaching an agreement, such corporate incursions into the hallowed halls of academia are occurring ever more frequently, threatening the very foundations of higher education in this country. Lawrence Soley provides a cogent analysis of this serious problem in Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia (South End Press, 1995). Soley, Colnik Professor of Communication at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI), debunks many conservative myths about higher education and exposes the increasing presence and corrupting influence of corporations on campus.

The Chimera of Leftist Domination

The picture painted by many conservatives of today's campus environment is one of long-haired Marxist-Leninist professors foaming at the mouth while spouting anti-capitalist propaganda and persecuting any unfortunate students who dare to question their dogma. While anyone who's set foot on a college campus within the past 20 years could easily refute such nonsense, the oft-repeated rhetoric can be powerful nonetheless. Speaking of 60's student activists, Stephen Balch, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, claims that they are now "gaining a considerable hand in the governance of departments, programs, and whole institutions."

In recent years, several stories by conservative students of alleged abuse at the hands of the campus "Politically Correct" crowd have received wide circulation in the media. As Soley points out, most of these stories are either outright fabrications, or embellishments that bear little similarity to actual events. But these anti-PC attacks serve an important purpose: "Rather than shedding light on what has happened to universities, the PC debate has succeeded in hiding what has happened." As the media has followed this line of reporting, Soley claims they have missed the real story about academe:

Who's Calling the Shots

Soley begins by examining those at the top of institutions of higher education, namely the university presidents and boards of directors (or trustees, as Cornell's board is called). Quoting Ben Bagdikian (Berkeley journalism professor), Soley notes that, "corporate executives are the largest single group represented on governing boards of colleges and universities," and these trustees "pick administrators who share their attitudes and corporate worldview; they do not pick left-wingers, multiculturalists, or radical feminists."

In addition, the escalating compensation of corporate CEO's is mirrored by the unusually high compensation packages offered to many university and college presidents by their boards. Trustees see the role of the university president primarily as a fund-raiser; success is gauged by the amount of money these collegiate CEO's raise, not what they do for the quality of education. For example, during Michael Sovern's 13 years as Columbia University's president, he nearly quadrupled the school's endowment to $1.9 billion. By the time he resigned, he had a salary of $363,000/year and benefits of $46,000. However, despite the huge increase in the endowment, Columbia's tuition soared during Sovern's tenure. (Cornell's president, Hunter Rawlings III, makes $199,580 in salary plus $137,175 in benefits and $26,400 in expenses.)

However, Sovern is not unique. Soley notes that the average salary of presidents at research universities was $141,000 in 1991, a 22% increase since 1988. By contrast, faculty salaries increased less than 10% during the same period. Soley doesn't compare these figures to wages paid to staff, which would have made for a more interesting contrast. Presidents also can and do supplement their incomes nicely by serving on corporate boards - a perk that is unavailable, of course, to janitors.

Board directors explain these hefty salaries by claiming that they compete with corporations for executives, "because both are essentially in the same business." Collegiate CEO's, like their corporate counterparts, are seen as heads of R&D institutions whose jobs are to bring in money and capital, with education but an afterthought. Furthermore, this pursuit of a corporate agenda infects the campus environment, as "professors learn from the behavior of their CEO's that the academic tower is not scaled by good teaching or dedicated scholarship, but by pandering to corporate needs and glad-handing tycoons."

And On Down the Line

Soley next examines the ties between faculty and corporations. In the area of medical research, Soley takes us back to the early years of the Cold War, when the military commissioned university researchers to conduct various kinds of unsavory if not outright criminal research, including human exposure to radiation and chemical/biological weapons. Only some of that research has received the public spotlight, after intense pressure and scrutiny of victims and their relatives finally resulted in admissions by the government and universities (which included such institutions as Harvard and MIT). The importance of these dubious associations is that they, "helped prepare university researchers for the ethical compromises that they would later make when doing work for corporations."

Presently, corporate funding compromises medical research in that faculty usually fail to disclose the source of their funding when publishing articles in medical journals. Though Soley gives examples of professors who have faked results to satisfy their corporate backers, he also adds that "deliberate fraud is a symptom of the problems with biomedical research, but it is not the major problem," which is rather that "university culture emphasizes economic and social advancement over knowledge."

Soley saves some of his most acerbic comments for business school professors, who are especially able to exploit opportunities for "consulting" - which largely refers to paid work done by a faculty member to improve a corporation's bottom line. A corporation contracts with a professor to conduct research according to the company's agenda, and then the professor will often publish the research in one of the many "academic" journals in the field without disclosing the source of the funding for the research.

As for the independent research done by business school faculty, Soley quotes the findings of a 1988 American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, which "concluded that the impact of business professors' academic research is "virtually nil," and that "much of business school research was 'trivial and irrelevant.'" The same study also found that business executives are "not very aware of what research is being carried out, and when [they] are aware of what research is being carried out, they typically report that they do not pay much attention to it."

In this field, relevance doesn't correlate with volume, as the number of journals devoted to publishing research on the minutiae of business operations is increasing rather than decreasing. Soley gives a multitude of examples of these obscure journals with microscopic circulation, including: Current Issues in Research and Advertising, Journal of Business-to-Business Marketing, Journal of Direct Marketing, Journal of Food Products Marketing, Journal of Retailing, and Journal of Promotion Management, just to name a few. In these journals you can find research on such important topics as "The Relationship Between Prior Brand Knowledge Acquisition and Information Order Acquisition" and "The Differential Processing of Product Category and Noncomparable Choice Alternatives".

While such dalliance in trivialities may seem harmless on the surface, Soley argues that business school professors use their consulting work and research as excuses to reduce their teaching loads, which has detrimental domino effects. "In order to reduce the teaching load of business school professors, some universities have even cut the budgets of other departments, particularly the humanities and social sciences." In addition,

Compensation rates vary dramatically for faculty from various departments, with medical and business school chairs and professors receiving much larger salaries than their counterparts in the social sciences and humanities. For example, in 1991 at Tulane University, a professor of orthopedics made $584,648 and the chair of the opthamology department was paid $563,620. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994, assistant professors of accounting made an average of $72,533, assistant professors of finance $71,108, assistant professors of marketing $63,140, and full professors of marketing $92,717. However, assistant professors of comparative literature averaged $33,767, assistant professors of art history $35,423, and assistant professors of East Asian languages $34,825. (According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the highest paid employee of a non-profit organization in 1997 was Wayne Isom, chair of the department of cardiothoracic surgery at Cornell's medical school, who raked in an astronomical $1,728,999 in salary, plus $45,431 in benefits.)

Business and medical school professors are hardly unique in their susceptibility to the siren song of corporate money. Social science faculty also get into the act: As Soley notes, "Consulting jobs from corporations can provide social scientists with far more money than their professorships." Such incentives skew the direction of social science research, as Soley observes in the explosion of "diversity training" for corporations, much of which is contracted out to social scientists. "As a result of professors having become diversity consultants, multicultural academic research has begun to focus on the best techniques to use for diversity training, rather than on such topics as the relationship between the concentration of wealth in the United States and poverty, or the relationship between poverty and racism."

One further insidious effect of the influx of corporate money is that "corporations and their foundations have become sacred cows to university administrators. Few professors are willing to jeopardize their standing in universities by publishing research articles critical of these donors." So corporations buy silence at the same time that they purchase favorable research.

Research Centers, Think Tanks, and the Whopper Chair

Enterprising corporations that want to do more than simply sponsor individual faculty might establish research centers or think tanks on campus. Though more costly than funding professors, such money is often considered well-spent because, to the extent that such organizations are identified and affiliated with the host institution, they garner a veneer of objectivity and neutrality that obscures their corporate origins. Soley argues that research centers, such as the Iacocca Institute for Economic Competitiveness at Lehigh University and the Center for Risk Management and Insurance Research at Georgia State University, "are essentially hubs of corporate influence," which "even admit openly that their primary goal is to serve industry rather than students."

Many campus-based think tanks, such as the Hoover Institution at Stanford, provide a home for conservative critics who "produce and distribute right-wing and pro-corporate propaganda tracts disguised as research, while simultaneously denouncing the politicization of college campuses." As Soley sees it, the schools get something in return: "Universities welcome these think tanks because they bring substantial amounts of money to the university and create an ideological climate in which university-corporate ties can easily flourish."

Yet another way for corporations to spend their money on campus is by endowing professorships. Although for many years named professorships were established by wealthy patrons in honor of a distinguished professor or in the name of a deceased benefactor, "Increasingly, however, endowed chairs are funded by and named for corporations, conservative foundations, right-wing politicians, and breathing fat cats, rather than deceased alumni or scholars." As a result, many professors carry rather unusual, sometimes comical, appendages to their titles. Such sobriquets include: Bell South Professor of Education through Telecommunication (University of South Carolina), John McCoy-Banc One Corp. Professor of Creativity and Innovation (Stanford University), Carlson Travel Tourism and Hospitality Chair (University of Minnesota), Sears Roebuck Professor of Economics (University of Chicago), and the mouth-watering McLamore/Burger King Chair (University of Miami). Such endowed professorships often come with subtle or overt strings attached; faculty who don't advance the agenda of the funder are not considered for these financially attractive positions.

Whither Education?

The accommodation of corporate invasions on campuses has clearly betrayed the democratic aims of higher education, as Soley remonstrates.

Furthermore, schools' cultivation of corporate ties foster the development of distinct classes of faculty, which in turn negatively effects the students. "Students in the arts and humanities not only receive instruction in shabbier facilities, but are also short-changed because their tuition dollars are diverted to the disciplines that do research for corporations."

One important aspect of the infusion of corporate money for research is that these funds do not cover the true costs of conducting this research, and in fact students, their families, and taxpayers are paying dearly to fund research of dubious educational value. Research expenditures are increasing at a much greater pace than expenditures on instruction, so that at schools such as Harvard and MIT, "research expenditures now equal or even exceed instructional expenditures."

Soley recommends several steps to counter these ominous trends. First would be the enactment of state laws requiring professors at state universities to teach a minimum number of courses every semester. He also argues for giving the greatest weight to teaching commitment and ability, rather than grant-winnings and volume of research, in the tenure and promotion process. Another step would be revoking the tax-exempt status of centers, institutes, and labs that conduct corporate research at private universities, which gives large tax breaks for corporations who shift their R&D activities to colleges and universities.

Achieving these goals will require changes in "the composition of universities' boards of trustees, which are now dominated by corporate CEOs." Here Soley advocates legislation that would require these bodies to reflect the makeup of the state's population.

Soley also links the infusion of corporate money to the decline in government support for higher education. While he doesn't call explicitly for an increase in federal or state spending on post-secondary education, implicit throughout his analysis is that one way to counter the corporate agenda would be to put colleges and universities on a sound financial footing.

While there are times when more comprehensive statistical data could bolster Soley's assertions, overall this is a vitally important book for anyone who cares about the state of higher education in this country.

What It Means for Us

Cornell University is not mentioned in Leasing the Ivory Tower. However, the issues raised therein are highly relevant, as the dynamics are similar to any other large research-centric university. Observers of Cornell's recent history will no doubt find much of Soley's material familiar.

UPA, in our brief history, has advocated many of the things Soley calls for in his book. We have called for a greater focus on teaching in the tenure process, for more inclusive representation on decision-making bodies (such as the Board of Trustees), for defense of academic freedom, and for a research agenda that is not determined by corporations, among other things. We might use this book as a point of departure; it provides a useful analysis of the institutional processes which have nurtured the current situation, but certainly doesn't exhaust the possibilities for directed attention and activism.

Soley sheds light on a serious problem facing higher education. What we do about it is up to us.

Leasing the Ivory Tower can be ordered from South End Press at 7 Brookline St. #1, Cambridge MA 02139, 617-547-4002

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