Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Derek Bok. xiv + 233 pp. Princeton University Press, 2003. $22.95.
Derek Bok was president of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991, the period when a tidal wave of business involvements swept through the American university system, orienting it to an embrace of commercial engagements unprecedented in its history. The wave was energized by multiple forces, salient among them the eagerness of industry to capitalize on the knowledge and expertise that universities were rapidly producing in the biomedical sciences. Universities and their faculties hoped in return for rich rewards, but both administrators and professors, Bok among them, sought arrangements with the corporate sector that would keep research and teaching free from industrial control. In 1982, a Harvard official, mindful of protecting academic institutions against commercial compromise, told a reporter, "What we want is to get pregnant without actually losing our virginity" (New York Times, February 21, 1982).
In Universities in the Marketplace, Bok acknowledges that the nation's universities are nowadays far from chaste. "Entrepreneurship . . . has taken hold in science faculties, business schools, continuing education divisions, and other academic units across the campus," he writes. Bok finds several valuable features in the trend. For example, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 encouraged universities to spin out federally funded innovations from their laboratories into the marketplace by patenting and licensing them to business enterprises. By the early 1990s, such technology transfer was well under way, to the benefit of medicine, the economy and the universities themselves.
Bok contends that universities might have something to learn from business practices, including management, accountability and cost control. He adds that if they drew on the ability of business to adapt to new circumstances, they might even devise methods and incentives to improve the quality of teaching. "The motives that inspire professors may be nobler than those that animate corporate leaders," he declares, "but in some respects, at least, they have proved less effective."
Still, Bok worries that "commercialization may be changing the nature of academic institutions in ways we will come to regret." One university charges advertisers for the right to post signs above urinals. Many profit from alumni cruises and the sale of coffee mugs and sweatshirts emblazoned with the university's name. A growing number lend their names and faculty to ventures that may compromise their integrity and reputations—for example, commercially sponsored Internet education or job-shop drug-testing for pharmaceutical companies.
Bok takes a pragmatic rather than a moralizing approach to the commercializing trend. He notes that if universities appear to offer themselves for sale, they will undermine their ability to teach students that some principles transcend those of the profit-making marketplace. He is generally concerned with determining consequentially which business practices are appropriate for universities and which are not. His book is a thoughtful, clear-eyed inquiry into the impact of commercialization on the university's fundamental missions of education and research.
Bok finds a paradigmatically instructive case in intercollegiate athletics, "the oldest form of commercialization in American higher education." Division I-A football and basketball produce huge revenues from television contracts, corporation-sponsored luxury stadium boxes and advertisements from manufacturers of sports apparel such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) got $6 billion from CBS for a grant of the exclusive broadcast rights to the "March Madness" basketball playoffs for 11 years. But a recent authoritative study that counts not only income but also capital and operational costs concluded, "As a money-making venture, athletics is a bad business."
Bok stresses that it is equally disadvantageous to the mission of higher education. Universities repeatedly violate NCAA rules, admitting players who fail to meet the standard requirements, arranging weak courses for the weak students, and generally discouraging players from taking their studies seriously—the incentive for the coaches is victory, not the education of their team members. The schools also exploit players by capping their compensation at the NCAA's allowed level of athletic scholarships while earning millions from their efforts on the field or the court. For most, college play is not a stepping-stone to multimillion-dollar pro contracts. Bok points out that fewer than 2 percent of college football and basketball players go on to succeed in professional sports. And although intercollegiate athletics does provide opportunity for some minority students, only a small fraction of those recruited into Division I-A schools graduate. In all, big-time college sports operate at the sacrifice of academic values and the responsibility to serve students well.
The commercialization of the university's scientific enterprise appears cost-effective on its face. Contrary to early apprehensions, industrial involvements have not shifted research significantly in commercial directions, Bok reports, explaining, "Apparently . . . the values that have traditionally inspired academic scientists have generally been strong enough to withstand the desire to grow rich." In 2000, institutions of higher learning reaped more than $1 billion in patent royalty income, and they highly value such revenues since they can be used for any purpose. However, of the 200 patent licensing offices that American universities support, only 19 earned more than $10 million; only 50, more than $2 million. Like most athletic programs, the large majority failed to earn an appreciable profit.
Worse, the lure of commercial income has tempted universities and their scientific faculty into a variety of practices corrupting of or counterproductive to their fundamental purposes. In response to the wishes of industrial sponsors, many have agreed to rules that undercut the openness of science, including secrecy in research or restraints on publication and discussion of results at conferences. Commercialism has also fostered gross conflicts of interest. Universities have formed consortia to test new drugs for pharmaceutical firms. Drawn mainly by the money and eager to retain the business, they have an incentive, Bok notes, "to avoid results that will disappoint their corporate sponsors." They exercise inadequate oversight of faculty with financial interests in companies sponsoring their research, who may subject patients to hazardous trials of the firm's products. In Bok's view, the university's devotion to profit making compromises its ability to discourage professors from spending time away from their institutional duties to make money for themselves.
In another departure from traditional practice, universities now tend to treat educational outreach as a profit center. For example, they offer training programs for corporate executives, many of which, Bok writes, "earn a handsome surplus for the sponsoring faculties." Medical and pharmaceutical companies now pay a third of the cost of programs of continuing education for physicians. The practice risks turning the efforts into promotions for the sponsors' products, Bok observes, noting that the companies would not likely spend hundreds of millions of dollars if they did not expect handsome rewards. Bok is similarly troubled by the willingness of some universities to entangle themselves with commercially sponsored education on the Internet, warning that control will inevitably fall to investors, whose primary aim is return on investment, not quality education.
In one of several recommendations for reform, Bok urges universities to quit trying to make distance learning a profit center, declaring that it presents an exciting educational opportunity and that they ought to develop it with resources from their own coffers or from philanthropic foundations. He intrepidly takes on intercollegiate athletics, calling, for example, for prohibiting freshmen from playing varsity sports and for arranging athletic scholarships to prevent coaches from compelling athletes to attend excessive practices that interfere with their studies.
Bok proposes a variety of measures to forestall the debasement of university science, notably flat prohibitions against the use of human subjects in projects supported by a company in which the researchers have a significant financial interest. Remarkably, he resists blanket conflict-of-interest rules for most other types of research, claiming that potential financial bias no more merits regulation than does ideological or religious bias in the expression of faculty views. The "free marketplace of ideas" will inevitably weed out the bad ideas, he says. The point is surely debatable. Ideological or religious commitments are likely to be inherently manifest in a scholar's writings. Financial ties do not show up on their own in scientific papers. And rewards that line one's pocket somehow seem more insidious than those that fuel social or political satisfaction.
Whatever his appreciation of commercializing the parts of the university, on balance Bok appears to find most of it treacherous. One can quarrel with aspects of his analysis—for example, his claim that universities have commercialized themselves primarily because of opportunity rather than need. The trend would seem to be the result of both, given academia's endlessly escalating hunger for resources. But no matter: Universities in the Marketplace is rich in provocative and original assessments, especially in treating together policies for the laboratory, learning and athletics. Bok is well aware that, as one knowledgeable critic has observed, reform movements in college athletics have "never reformed much of anything." Indeed, one wonders whether his reforms stand a chance amid the current devotion to the entrepreneurial free market. Still, he resolutely cautions that
Before moving further down this path [of commercialization], university leaders should recall the history of intercollegiate athletics and ponder the lesson it teaches. Confounding expectations, the hoped-for-profits often fail to materialize, while the damage to academic standards and institutional integrity proves to be all too real.