Finding the Learning Amid the Commerce

FEW industry-university partnerships are prompting questions of conflict of interest - including the commitment of the university to its core mission to educate.

University commercial ventures put strains on faculty members' loyalty to their institutions and to teaching. Issues involved include: use of facilities and faculty time, division of patent royalties, and limitations on access to research.

Robert Rosensweig, president of the Association of American Universities, notes that the closest ties between academic and commercial research are in biotechnology and computers, "where what is coming out of university labs is so close to product development that faculty are starting their own companies.

"We're just beginning to put together a document to assist institutions with conflict-of-interest policy," he says.

Other critics see the ethical challenge of university-business ties as much deeper.

"What you are getting is a rapid shift toward defining higher education as a service industry and making it subject to market demands. The university becomes more a holding company for entrepreneurs and less a cohesive institution pursuing a way of life," says Robert Zemsky, head of the University of Philadelphia's Institute for Research in Higher Education.

"Places like MIT are conduits for public subsidy for private industry," says David Noble, a co-founder of the Washington-based Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest. "In a nutshell, the universities are getting out of the education business.

"We've found that it's not unusual for university presidents to make more from their corporate board fees than from their university salaries," Mr. Noble adds. "They're cutting back on curricular offerings, jacking up tuition, restricting access while spending madly in building new laboratories and beefing up their commercially viable enterprises. That is visible on every campus in America: Impoverishment of the educational mission and expansion of the commercial one."

The criticism of university-corporate ties that colored academic politics in the 1960s and '70s is largely absent on campuses today.

University of Massachusetts President Michael Hooker attributes the lack of debate on campus about the new role of the research university to a shift in "culture."

"There is not the culture [on campus] now that there was 20 years ago. For example, in biology, those collaborating now do so when they are attached to the same company.... What's amazing is how rapidly the culture has changed with so little upheaval.

"As the universities begin to acquire the role of technology transfer, they will hire faculty who don't teach at all but will focus on technology transfer," Mr. Hooker says. "You may see a division of labor on faculties: one focused on teaching and one on research."

Some faculty members attribute this muted debate to the budget crunch.

"In the past, faculty members who expressed concerns about public-private tension did so from a position of strength. Now everyone knows this is not the case," says Erik Devereux, an assistant professor of political science at Carnegie-Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Pittsburg, Pa. "The state colleges are the backbone of the job market, and they're in deep trouble.

"One of the lasting legacies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush is a wide acknowledgment of the role of the private sector, and Bill Clinton never disputed that," Mr. Devereux adds. "In light of that, universities are going to be more reliant on the private sector and that is not going to change. When universities ask where money is coming from, it's going to be coming from the private sector."

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