By the time you read this, in the Indian summer of our discontent, BP probably will have finished its static kill and relief wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
Eager students will certainly be headed back into classrooms at the University of California, Berkeley, now home to what is believed to be the largest public-private research consortium in the country. Only a tiny handful of those students may have access to the proprietary, private biofuel research labs of BP, leveraged by public money and located on a public university’s campus.
In 2007, Berkeley gave away access, transparency, and public knowledge— and ultimately a healthy chunk of its good reputation—for money. BP managed to cap off that particular deal at $500 million, with the state of California eagerly throwing in $70 million in state funding and bonds.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and a professor of public policy at Berkeley, warned that the BP alliance could be either “a huge feather in Berkeley’s cap or a huge noose around Berkeley’s neck.”
Reich was wrong. Berkeley didn’t end up with either a feather or a noose. Instead, it got an unholy combination of both: an oily albatross.
The debate that occurred was a mockery: BP’s alluring tide of research funding had already dampened the toes of the major players. Academic freedom and funding were conflated as easily as the Supreme Court conflated free speech and money earlier this year. Think strong faculty governance is the solution? It wasn’t. Berkeley’s faculty senate resoundingly approved a resolution that stated that “grave issues of academic freedom would be raised” if the senate did anything other than bless the deal. Besides, policies were already in place, upholding “the highest standards and integrity of research.”
Berkeley administrators and scientists working with BP funding now defensively proclaim that the gusher in the gulf proves the importance of their work on BP’s biofuels projects. It’s a sad and ancient rime, and it happens all the time. Faculty members continue to delude themselves into thinking that they can use corporate money with strings attached for ultimately good purposes. But as Reich noted, “The basic reality is that corporations are not charitable or public institutions. They do not exist primarily to advance the public interest but their investors’ interests.”
BP’s university ties have grown since the spill. Scientists from a number of universities accepted proprietary contracts clearly stating that BP is buying not just their research but also their silence.
In this oily state of affairs, there are a few fresh exceptions: BP approached the University of South Alabama’s Department of Marine Sciences about shore restoration, but after university counsel clarified that total transparency and no proprietary research was the university’s only option, BP hasn’t returned.
If we are going to leap onto the accountability and assessment bandwagons with alacrity—the theme of this issue—maybe it’s time to start assessing what students learn when they see public and nonprofit universities handing away higher education to corporate interests. What kind of outcomes, exactly, should we expect when we allow corporations free rein within our universities? Is there a beachhead that the faculty believes is worth defending?