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From the General Secretary: Private Models, Public Costs

By Gary Rhoades

Presidents, governing boards, and policy makers are preaching the gospel of revenue generation. It is not a new gospel. We have witnessed more than three decades of “academic capitalism” extensively promoted by revision of public law and aggressively pursued by institutions engaging in market-like behaviors. Colleges and universities have been increasingly applying market logic to academic decision making (about faculty productivity, program cuts, and what fields of research to invest in) and seeking to grant and fundraise their way up the rankings to some imagined place in the sun. Insufficiently addressed in this academic gold rush are the public costs of pursuing private models and measures of success. Some of these costs are economic. Some attach to our ability as an academy to fulfill our social responsibilities as a public trust. Our responsibility to the public trust in the conduct of science is the focus of this issue of Academe.

It takes money to try to make money. Money for new positions and activities. Money to underwrite new initiatives, which often go bust. This happened in the late 1990s when not-for-profit universities set up for-profit, online education enterprises, with many universities establishing overseas campuses to try to capitalize on foreign markets, and it has happened in the creation of research parks and the pursuit of other entrepreneurial science initiatives that often fail to generate net revenues.

Yet we in the academy are bad accountants. We track credits, not debits. Most academic managers and some academics can tell you how much money is “brought in” to the institution in grants and contracts or through other entrepreneurial efforts. But it is the rare administrator or faculty member who has calculated what it cost to bring that money in and whether there is a net gain.

The entrepreneurial efforts of not-for-profit universities have disproportionately increased nonacademic administrative positions, activities, and costs. They have diverted focus and monies from core academic missions. In terms of the public trust, however, the costs are even greater.

The academy’s ability to realize its potential and fulfill its responsibilities to society is a function of academic freedom. So stated the founders of the AAUP in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. Their focus was not only on the rights of individual academics but also on the collective dimensions of academic freedom central to professors and institutions. Academic freedom is essential if faculty members and institutions are to uphold the public trust in the advancement of knowledge (since to compromise academic freedom is to impede progress in controversial realms of knowledge), in instruction (since to compromise academic freedom is to diminish the quality of education students receive), and in expert service to the community (since to compromise academic freedom is to subvert academics’ ability to weigh in as independent experts on disputed matters of public policy).

At the core of our Association’s creation was the threat to the freedom of social scientists to participate in key public-policy debates (about unions, immigration, child labor, and so on). For decades we have witnessed similar threats to academic freedom in one field of science and engineering after another, as professors and universities have developed ever closer and more dependent relations with pharmaceutical, microelectronic, petrochemical, and other industrial sectors. Recent controversies are but the latest examples of structural challenges resulting from structural adjustments in the funding of higher education and in the relationship between the public and private sectors.

The bright lines that should delineate the independence of academia have been blurred and even erased. No doubt, academic scientists and their institutions will continue to work with companies. But they should do so more as independent actors than as hired hands working on commission.

Public policy is encouraging professors and universities to do more with less public money, as it has done for decades. It is encouraging them to generate more of their monies on their own, for operational support and even for salaries (especially in medical schools and in the sciences and engineering). There is great public cost to this private model, which in actuality depends on extensive federal subsidy. By contrast, there is great public value in public policies that support an independent academy.

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