The Corporate University Grinds On

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:18:00 AM

With all due respect to those who have just noticed, the corporatization/privatization of universities public and private, in California and elsewhere, has been going on for a long time. Way back in the late 1970s I was the only journalist and the only intellectual property lawyer who participated in a semester-long seminar on the problem at Stanford sponsored by the National Science Foundation. We focused on the effect on scientific research of what were potentially high-profit new technologies then under development in university laboratories. Central to the discussion was the biotechnology industry, then just beginning its migration from labs at Stanford and UCSF into lucrative companies like Genentech.  

I got a lot of good material out of those seminars, which later became articles in the ’80s in relatively high-profile magazines like the Nation and Mother Jones, and in more obscure and even more earnest publications with names like Multinational Monitor. The key issue, always, went back to the question I had learned to ask when I read Cicero’s Orations in high school: Cui bono? Good for whom? Who profits? 

At that point, believe it or not, many researchers working on the exciting new frontiers in molecular biology simply published their results for colleagues to use and learn from. In our seminars, this was contrasted with the evolution of the Silicon Valley electronics industry from engineering research at Stanford, which had been orchestrated by a sophisticated Stanford patenting and licensing office which at the time did not have a University of California counterpart. 

That’s all changed. Twenty years before Silicon Valley got started, C.P. Snow wrote extensively about the cultural gap between scholars of science and of humanities which existed in universities in his era. By 2009, exactly a half-century on from his seminal “Two Cultures” lecture, it’s become clear that science and engineering now rule campuses almost everywhere. Universities have discovered that there’s big money in science and its progeny, and have adapted to better match the corporate science model of squeezing maximum profit out of research dollars, complete with aggressive intellectual property policies that discourage sharing results with peers.  

Corporatization segued into privatization when corporations which had been making research grants to support academic researchers figured out that while buying the milk is nice, owning the cow is even better. The days when corporations like AT&T maintained major in-house research and development efforts like Bell Labs are over. Now British Petroleum, newly sanitized as BP, has an ownership interest in University of California at Berkeley laboratories (exact details concealed as “trade secrets”) and its captive researchers are falling all over themselves to turn West Berkeley into a proprietary theme park for their biofuel R&D companies.  

What private corporations control, the public doesn’t. That’s why public money now constitutes only about 20 percent of the University of California’s funding. And why the “president” of UC looks and acts a lot like a corporate CEO and is paid accordingly. (If you have a strong stomach, check out Deborah Solomon’s Q&A with UC President Mark Yudof in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.) 

Professors who are trying to blame the California Legislature and its budgeting woes for the university’s problems are not following the money. There’s no incentive for the state’s elected officials to worry about funding its universities when private corporations are so eager to do it for them. As long as the Board of Regents is comprised mostly of corporate executives, they won’t complain about a university whose priorities are increasingly controlled by the corporate profit agenda. 

Several of the UC regents, in fact, like Richard Blum (husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein) amassed their own wealth in the building industry, and are delighted to see companies like BP paying for yet another major construction project. Decent pay for teaching assistants and cafeteria staff does nothing for the bottom line. Undergraduate education has never been a profit center.  

Will rallies and walkouts make any difference in this discouraging picture? As long as so many researchers are content to take home generous paychecks from BP and its ilk, protests by the teaching faculty and by students are not likely to prevent the machine from working, as Mario Savio and his Free Speech Movement colleagues earnestly hoped they would. In his famous “throw your bodies upon the gears” speech, Savio derided a “well-meaning liberal” who compared the president of the university to “the manager of a firm” and the regents to “his board of directors.” That was 1964, but not much has changed. 

In the meantime, in fact, privatization/corporatization has proceeded apace with little to slow it down. Each segment of the university community recognizes its own woes and is willing to fight the machine in its own way, but seldom do all work together for change.  

Students protest tuition hikes. Faculty complain about administration of the euphemistically titled “furloughs” (actually pay cuts). Staff workers denounce inadequate pay and working conditions. A few alumni withhold contributions. 

But until all of these varied groups manage to get together and speak with one voice, the gears of the machine will continue to grind on. They’ve been grinding away like this for at least half a century, and as the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus said, “the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.”  

Academics have a deplorable tendency to bicker over arcane formulations and vie for high-profile leadership roles, a tendency which could sabotage the current protest if it’s not kept in check. Perhaps the secret is that protesters, instead of throwing their bodies on the gears, should think of themselves as trying to amass a great number of tiny grains of sand. More followers, not more leaders, are needed now. Enough sand in the gears will stop almost any machine.