How To Reach C&ENACS Membership 

Advanced Options


September 22, 2003
Volume 81, Number 38
CENEAR 81 38 p. 36
ISSN 0009-2347


UNIVERSITIES IN THE MARKETPLACE: The Commercialization of Higher Education, by Derek Bok, Princeton University Press, 2003, 256 pages, $22.95 (ISBN: 0-691-11412-9)


The popular cultural icon of the university as an "ivory tower" that is somehow immune to crass commercial desires and conflicts is not accurate now, and probably never was. In a thoughtful book, "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education," retired Harvard University president Derek Bok considers the effect marketplace influence will have on the modern university. His conclusion is not reassuring.

Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
He writes, "Commercialization threatens to change the character of the university in ways that limit its freedom, sap its effectiveness, and lower its standing in the society." Wow! Agree or disagree, those within the academy, particularly the senior faculty and administration, ignore this warning at the risk of considerable peril.

There is no doubt that risk accompanies every venture. The key, of course, is to balance the risks against the potential benefits. The benefit of commercialization is clearly and unashamedly identified--it's the money.

Now, that's not bad in itself. We all know that universities are constantly faced with more worthwhile opportunities than they can afford to pursue, and more resources will allow additional good works to be done. The challenge to balancing the risk-benefit equation is that the money is real and immediate, but the risks are amorphous, will accumulate slowly, and will affect some distant future. Bok tells two cautionary tales to hammer this point home: those of college athletics and of commercializing intellectual property.

He has little good to say about big-time college athletics, and on this point, many within the academy will wholeheartedly agree. Bok's careful analysis easily demolishes the popular myths about the benefits of college athletics and exposes its flaws and abuses. This story teaches two critical lessons. First, now that the genie is out of the bottle, no one can put it back. University presidents are caught in a money trap they cannot escape. The monster must be fed, and feeding the monster causes it to grow. Sadly, only a few college athletic programs earn money. The majority are trying desperately to spawn teams that will generate sufficient revenue to cover costs.

Second, Bok warns that unclear rules are always subject to negotiation, and in this negotiation money will prevail over principle much of the time. For example, universities admit students, recruited by coaches, based on athletic skill but who have little chance of succeeding in specially created, watered-down courses in made-up majors. To build a winning athletic team, admissions policies are relaxed, grades lose some meaning, and the value of the degree is diluted. The lesson taught: Everything is for sale if the price is right.

An unfortunate truth about college athletics is that success--a winning team--does nothing to advance the university's mission of teaching, research, and service. But many of the newer commercial opportunities now being considered have a different character: Their success can affect the core goals of the university. Consequently, the promised benefits they carry are greater. But so are the risks. Bok defines the boundaries of this new marketplace broadly so that it includes nearly every significant function of a major university.



A large portion of the book is devoted to the relationship of university research functions and commercial concerns that seek to exploit knowledge for profit. There are obvious benefits to all involved from a carefully constructed, well-managed exchange of information. New research findings will more quickly be turned into useful products, participating corporations will gain a competitive advantage, and universities will have access to additional revenues. However, a natural risk is that universities and funding agencies might pressure faculty members to shift research away from fundamental inquiry toward short-term goals that have apparent commercial value.

It is not too far-fetched to imagine that the criteria for the award of tenure could shift from the recognition of discovery to include a reward for earning significant sums for the university. The marketplace often requires secrecy, which will restrain the rapid and free exchange of knowledge that is critical to scientific progress. The results of research done with money provided by commercial firms may carry a taint that it somehow has been manipulated to support the sponsor's product. Bok emphasizes this latter point several times for the case of drug companies that provide lucrative contracts to medical schools that perform a service such as searching for the benefits of their drug over that of a competitor.

Do the risks of marketing the university's intellectual property outweigh the benefits? Time will tell, but Bok's message should serve as an informed, thoughtful warning to university administrators and faculty members. The greatest concern is not the unwise, hasty deal arranged for quick profit, which is easily spotted and stopped. Instead, it is the relentless assault on the standards and ideals that establish the university as an unbiased seeker of truth. Each standard compromised for a good cause makes the next compromising decision easier to accept. Unless the risks are clearly understood and carefully managed, in the end everything will be for sale.

The marketplace for university services extends beyond research functions. Teaching is a central mission of every university, and many opportunities are available for its commercialization. Bok considers distance learning, continuing education, and advanced professional training. Many universities today view such programs as a mechanism for simultaneously fulfilling their legitimate goals and tapping a source of additional revenue.

For example, Bok describes Internet-based instruction as a powerful tool that can transcend time and place to bring educational opportunities to those unable to attend a traditional classroom. This is a promise not unlike that made for correspondence courses of an earlier generation. We have learned in the past decade that production and maintenance of Internet courses is neither easy nor cheap.

The pressure, therefore, will be to market these courses to the masses so that the incremental revenue generated by adding a student is below the real cost incurred in serving that student. The danger to universities lurks in being drawn into a competitive "arms race" from which withdrawal is impossible, as has happened in athletics. Since the cost of entry into the business of doing Internet teaching is high, and in the end there will be far more losers than winners, Bok warns that universities will be tempted to market their good reputation to naive groups of students who will receive a watered-down product at high cost and receive little real benefit. This seems like a surefire way to lower the standing of universities in society.

Conversely, Bok is less concerned about the commercialization of continuing education courses marketed to professionals seeking to enhance their skills or obtain needed credentials. This group is sophisticated and mostly able to select programs that provide real value. Still, universities need to be vigilant to protect their reputation for objectivity.

A case in point is continuing medical education offered by medical schools and underwritten by drug companies. Are the sponsoring company's products going to be presented in anything but the most favorable light in such a course?The objectivity of those universities that become irrevocably dependent on such revenue will certainly be questioned.

Given the real and apparent risk to higher education from commercialization, what remedies are offered to protect the ivory tower from the onslaught? Not many, and none that do not require insightful people of goodwill to take potentially unpopular positions. Universities have a tradition of faculty governance that often drifts in the doldrums of minutiae, but which can rise to provide a stabilizing force during times of crisis. Bok considers various means for universities to police themselves before some other entity--government, for example--steps in.

The only approach that survives careful scrutiny requires respected faculty members and thoughtful administrators to step forward and sound warnings that initiate serious debate and consideration of potential risks. Will they? Probably not, unless they have read this book.

Gary Schuster is professor of chemistry and biochemistry and dean of sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

E-mail this article to a friend
Print this article
E-mail the editor

Home | Table of Contents | Today's Headlines | Business | Government & Policy | Science & Technology |
About C&EN | How To Reach Us | How to Advertise | Editorial Calendar | Email Webmaster

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society. All rights reserved.
• (202) 872-4600 • (800) 227-5558

CASChemPortChemCenterPubs Page