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Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003/2005, $16.95, 233 pages, ISBN 0-691-12012-9)—
Olivier Frayssé, Université de Paris Sorbonne Paris IV


This award-winning book by the "premier elder statesman of American higher education" (L.A. Times) is a must-read for anyone interested in either the United States or higher education, or both. Derek Bok's book has three main parts: first, a factual study resting on an extensive survey of the existing literature, which tends to be largely critical of the process of commercialization; then, an assessment of the benefits and costs of commercialization; third, a series of proposals to remedy the problems.

Bok is a staunch defender of academic values, but he is also an admirer of the US business model, which makes it difficult to dismiss his work as biased. He writes that while universities can learn from successful firms to rationalize some of their activities, the business model and the profit motive are not transposable to institutions of higher learning. While many university presidents scramble for funding and embark in questionable total quality management schemes, the apparently "anarchical" model of academic governance in the US has proven as successful, in its sphere, as the business model of US corporations. The motivation of academics is not primarily financial, and the free play of supply and demand will never yield the best possible allocation of resources in education. The profit motive at the roots of the business model that is exploited by commercialization exists for academics, but does not seem to have a negative effect on their involvement in research (professors with a consulting practice publish more, on average, than their fellow academics who don't, although Bok does not explore the causal links), while it has negative consequences on teaching and especially on collegial duties.

Bok starts his survey with the first attempt at commercialization of American universities via athletics, at the end of the last century. His conclusion is that the commercial benefits of university athletics (basically football and baseball) are few and far between, while the cost is heavy in terms of lowering of standards (5% to 30% of students, depending on the university are admitted on the basis of their ability to join the varsity teams) and decline in academic values. The most disquieting aspect of his study is that, while every serious student of the question would argue for a complete pullout of universities from that business, entrenched interests born of a century of practice make it impossible to eradicate the activity, and very difficult to reform it.

He then addresses the impact of commercialization on scientific research, in the wake of the Bay-Dole act of 1980, which prompted universities to take out patents for inventions made in their laboratories. While there is no observable decline in basic research, since private commercial funding accounts only for 10% of the total of research money, especially in the well-endowed prestigious research universities, there are nevertheless serious problems.

The first problem is the non-publication clauses imposed by the private party in research contracts, which prevents the free flow of information that is the lifeblood of research. While the corporations that invest in research projects should be able to decide on whether to take out a patent for the invention resulting from the research they order within a couple of months, they customarily impose a longer delay. Only 12% of universities have established their own guidelines limiting the contractual delay that can be imposed on their academics by such contracts. In the highly lucrative field of drug research, abuses are frequent and sometimes outrageous, with some large corporations using every contractual, legal and illegal way to delay publication of results which do not satisfy them, for up to seven years. And the scandals which erupt periodically in this matter are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Second, heavy corporate funding of such sensitive areas of research as pollution, global warning, tobacco, etc. has distorted results to the extent that the public no longer trusts academic expertise. Third, conflicts of interest are rampant, when academics, and their universities, have a commercial stake in the results of research, in terms of the profitability of patented inventions, the value of stock invested by individuals or universities in corporations whose financial results are affected by the research, the endowments provided by these corporations, the development of start-ups for which the universities provide seed money, etc. With 11 million human subjects involved every year, the actual and potential damage of these conflicts of interest is huge. Until now, a coalition of business and universities, which often have huge commercial interests of their own and are not immune to corporate greed, has defeated all attempts at government regulation in this matter.

Last, but not least, Bok turns to the impact of commercialization on education and explores distance education, including on-line education, continuing education and customized education and training for various individual and corporate clients. On the whole, he supports customized education and training for various professionals as a source of income to improve education and fund unprofitable activities, and as a source of knowledge for the professors who are confronted to real-life situations when designing their courses. But he warns against the excessive power of sponsors on the curriculum, using the example of the medical profession: physicians have to undergo training periodically, and universities provide such training with the help of a host of medical supplies and drug companies, that offer funding and give or lend equipment in exchange for a chance to influence, more or less subtly, the future purchasing and prescribing behaviors of the trainees. On the hot issue of online education, Bok asks the good questions: will the power of branding (Michael Milken enlisting the Columbia business school in his U. Next venture, other major universities following suit) result in inferior online education for an undiscerning body of enrollees? Can online education give students all the formative resources and life experience that campus life offers? Will the nature of the media produce a "starization" of a handful of professors and the deskilling and exploitation of the others? He writes that it is too early to assess the results of the ongoing experiment.

After this survey, Bok proceeds to make an assessment of the costs and benefits to the institution of all these efforts at commercialization. The list of benefits is short, especially compared to the expectations of the proponents of commercialization: athletics cost money, patenting generates little if any revenue for most universities, NYU and many other universities had to cancel their online education programs, etc. The costs are high: government support is more difficult to obtain when universities behave like and want to be seen as business enterprises. The idea of "market pull" fails to provide a supply of better education or research: "as in commercial television, excellent programming rarely comes about unless the audience demands it." And, all important to Bok, ethics are the main victims of commercialization: "the most compelling moral examples any institution can give are ones that demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice immediate self-interest, if need be, for the sake of some higher principle. Conversely, the worst possible examples are those in which the institution, despite its high-minded pronouncements, does the reverse." Other negative consequences of commercialization are the decline of liberal arts and basic science when students mainly motivated by material values choose vocational courses rather than more fundamental syllabi. When universities become obsessed with material values, so do their faculties, and there is even the risk of seeing deans and presidents "discussing terms of employment not directly with their best-known professors, but rather with professional agents," while "graduate students and junior faculty, who have little power individually, may decide to protect their interests by forming unions and bargaining collectively with the administration." This will be paralleled by a decline of the status of academics as purveyors of scientific knowledge in the public mind.

Why is the trend towards commercialization so powerful, given the negative bottom-line of this balance of costs and benefits? Bok's answer is that competition between universities provides an incentive for the majority of universities to follow "the path of least resistance" and replicate the efforts of a handful of pioneers in each field of commercialization. These innovators are usually smaller, less-well endowed universities, which see commercialization as the only way to attract students and money and thus have a go at disrupting the pecking order in US academia, an order which has been barely untouched since 1900, or for-profit institutions.

In his last part, Derek Bok makes a series of recommendations to limit the impact of commercialization on universities, including ethical codes, regulation of athletics, and reform of university governance. Under the pressures of commercialization, universities have moved increasingly away from collegiality in the direction of a "bureaucratic, top-down, centralized, automatic and managerial" decision making process, according to 73% of respondents in a 1998 survey. The committees that are supposed to represent the faculty and assist in the decisions taken by university presidents are usually peopled by second-rate professors who have little in common with the devoted scientists whom they speak for and meager managerial skills that are no match for the administration's huge bureaucratic apparatus. But the universities are not the only ones to blame for their troubles. In a lot of cases, the government has made them become commercialized (in the field of research in particular). And "public officials should also be aware of the influence of government funding on the growth of commercialization. The last line of defense for basic academic standards is an adequate and stable level of support. As a practical matter, survival will almost always take precedence over institutional values."

Boks concludes with a warning: the "Faustian bargain" that is often being struck in today's universities may well prove Faustian indeed in terms of the eternity of suffering ahead, since the present generation of academics will soon be replaced by one of entrepreneurs. The brave new professors, born and bred in an entrepreneurial climate, will know precious little about traditional academic values, and, even if they do know about such things as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, integrity, free flow of ideas and the like, they will not give them a high priority in their decisions. His last chapter is entitled "Seizing the moment" and is a vibrant appeal to reform before it is too late.

All in all, a very challenging book, with lessons galore for European academics. On the other hand, while very bold in its scope and substantial in its treatment, the book sidesteps some issues. Too many of the examples come from life science, which makes for drama but fails to address such issues as the impact of government—including military—sponsored research on many branches of research. And he barely addresses the question of the influence of commercialization, and more subtle ways of influencing research and teaching, when it comes to economics, or politics. While he argues convincingly that the market-based solutions are often wrong for academia, Bok never explores the conditions in which the market dogmas have been established in the business schools and economics departments of universities… And he speaks of commercialized education only when he deals with people who are not full-time residing students paying normal fees, leaving aside the consequences of having students who are clients, even in a not-for-profit organization.

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