Worried about cash and the academy

Interview / Derek Bok

Despite two-decades as president of Harvard University, Derek Bok never really got used to the parade of money making deals - "get rich quick schemes" he calls them now - that confronted him nearly every day.

Most sounded pretty good, too. Like the time a big drug company suggested a cable television program featuring the Harvard Medical School staff. Harvard would provide a public service, control the content, and get paid millions. The sponsor's commercials would appear at breaks.

"It sounded for all the world like a win-win situation," Dr. Bok recalls in an interview in his office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "You're informing the public - and you're getting all this money to fund professorships and research. Then you start thinking about it."

Would Harvard cardiologists in white coats on the show be mistaken for drug spokesmen in white coats during commercials? he wondered. Would viewers believe that Harvard was endorsing the product?

As he mulled over the proposal, Bok also realized viewers might reasonably question the objectivity of the school's researchers if the sponsor's products won a positive review. It was, he finally decided, a dagger pointed at the heart of Harvard's hard-earned reputation for academic integrity. He nixed the deal.

But long after his return to the faculty in 1991, Bok continued to ponder the role of commercial deals in American higher education. It's not that he opposes commercializing university research. On the contrary, he favors it - if under strict faculty and trustee oversight.

Yet in his new book, "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education" published in April, Bok warns that just as big-time college sports corroded academic integrity, so too, a raft of new patent-licensing and marketing deals threatens academe's core values, including its research integrity.

Bok isn't the only Paul Revere ringing out a warning. A spate of other new books also weigh in on higher education's vulnerability. (See listing.)

Particularly at a time when many colleges and universities are desperate for funds, a slew of research contracts with stiff secrecy requirements that restrict inquiry but pay big dividends, may seem overwhelmingly enticing. In 2000, more than $1 billion flowed to universities from patent licenses alone, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Still, short-term gains may bring long-term harm to higher education by setting in motion practices that undermine public trust and student and faculty ideals, Bok says. What follows are excerpts of a recent Monitor interview with Bok on commercialism and American higher education:

On the lessons to draw from big-time college athletics:

I think everybody is aware of what [the money in big time] athletics does to the basic values of the university admission standards, standards of integrity, even the curriculum. So I think that should be a lesson to us about what can happen if you just let things run their natural course. The problem of commercialization in education and in research is again not entirely new... but the opportunities to make money from teaching and research have increased enormously in the last 30 years.

On the surge of deals since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1984 that let universities profit from patenting and licensing their research:

"We now have probably 200 universities or more that have set up offices explicitly devoted to trying to increase [licensing] contacts between business and their campus.... That cooperation between universities and business is not inherently bad. The trick is, it can take forms that are harmful to university values like openness in research, for instance.

On how excessive secrecy can undermine research:

It never appears overtly as a question of cheating.... But when the question is: "Do I sign the lucrative research contract with business and get the money now, or do I say, 'No,' because they require six months of secrecy when two months is all they deserve - you can see who is going to win. You're going to sign the contract and get the money because who is to say whether an extra four months ... is going to do any harm. But when every university does that, too, you begin to substantially increase the amount of secrecy in the system and then you do have bad results.

On the difficulty of evaluating new business opportunities:

These opportunities come in very seductive guises where you can make very plausible arguments that "this really isn't much of a change," or "it's what we've done before," and you slip bit by bit into bad practices.

What to do about it:

You have to strike this uneasy balance where you are encouraging positive collaboration with business, but guarding against practices that undermine university values. It's difficult because there isn't a clear bright line. It requires the constant application of judgment. And that is very hard to do when the university very much needs money - and where the president is usually making these decisisons by himself, or with a few associates. They are simultaneously under great pressure to come up with more money to satisfy faculty and enhance the prestige of the institution.

On how to evaluate new business opportunities:

You need general standards. If you just take each case one by one, the pressure to go for the money slowly, gradually, makes deeper and deeper compromises in the basic values of the institution. It's almost inevitable because the money looks immediate and tangible and the consequences to higher education are much more remote....

At Harvard we have a rule that you cannot impose more than 60 days of secrecy under a research contract with industry.... We also have strict rules that if you have more than $10,000 in financial holdings in companies for whom you are doing human-subject research, you can't do the research. You either get rid of the holdings or you don't do the research."

Second, you need to have a system for developing and enforcing these rules that doesn't put the entire onus on the president's office. He's only one person and he's under tremendous pressure to get money. So you want to get the faculty involved in developing these rules and in monitoring them... and then get the trustees interested in evaluating their president not only on how much money is raised, but on how the money is raised.

On what messages get sent by taking money and infringing values:

If you aren't very careful, you convey a message to everyone in the university that everything is for sale if the money is right. When you do that you give some pretty poor values to your students, but you also make faculty feel like, "Well gee, if that's the way they feel, I'll certainly go out and spend more time trying to make money starting businesses and consulting and doing various other things because that's the way things are around here. Money trumps everything."

On competitive rankings:

Competition between schools is intensified by these [national magazine] ratings to be better and have more prestige than other institutions. The only way you increase your ratings is by spending more money. So if you mix all of those - the financial hardship, the volume of deals, and the competition - you've got a very potent combination.

On business and higher ed

The University in a Corporate Culture, Yale University Press. By Eric Gould, professor of English, University of Denver. Available.

Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, Harvard University Press - November 2003. By David L. Kirp, professor of public policy, University of California at Berkeley.

Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980, Duke University Press. January 2004. By Christopher Newfield, professor of English, University of California at Santa Barbara.

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