Pugwash: Corporatization is here to stay

With the recent partnership between Yahoo Labs and Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department and the announcement of Google Vice President Andrew Moore for Carnegie Mellon’s dean of computer science, Pugwash decided to tackle the emerging issue of corporatization of universities. We were fortunate to be joined by Heather Steffen, a literary and cultural studies graduate student who teaches an interpretation and argument course on this topic.

The corporatization of universities is defined as universities building closer ties with industry and universities acting more like corporations. We began our discussion by naming examples of corporatization we have run into at Carnegie Mellon. The partnership with Yahoo Labs was fresh in everyone’s mind. According to a Carnegie Mellon news release, Project InMind is a five year, $10 million dollar partnership between Yahoo and Carnegie Mellon. It is predicated on providing Carnegie Mellon researchers access to real time data from Yahoo services to “speed up the pace of mobile and personalization research and create a better user experience,” said Ron Brachman, chief scientist and head of Yahoo Labs, in the news release. The partnership also includes a fellowship program for students and faculty with financial support from Yahoo, and mentorship from researchers at Yahoo Labs and Carnegie Mellon.

We also discussed Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus, which according to its homepage, works “with partners in the San Francisco Bay Area to establish a natural extension for the university’s acclaimed graduate degree programs, innovative research, and support for entrepreneurs.” A final example of corporatization at Carnegie Mellon is the interpretation and argument class that every first-year must go through, which is taught by adjunct professors and teaching assistants at a much lower cost to the university.

Our discussion then moved on to the effect of corporatization on teaching. According to the American Association of University Professors, 76 percent of instructional staff appointments in American higher education are non-tenure-track appointments. Non-tenure-track faculty are advantageous to universities, because they are less expensive than tenure-track faculty. However, the American Association of University Professors remarks that the use of contingent faculty “damages student learning, faculty governance, and academic freedom.” We then discussed the effect of corporatization on research. Steffen gave a wonderful summary of the history of the relationship between universities and business of which only the final point will be provided here. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 allowed universities to hold the patents for the results of research conducted with federal funding. Since then, federal sponsorship for university research has declined whilst corporate sponsorship has increased. This change in sponsorship is not without cost. According to The Guardian, “Pittsburgh based industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, canceled its funding of a Pennsylvania State University research project after two faculty members bowed out, citing bias in the study. An earlier Penn State report, also paid for by the natural gas industry, was used by Pennsylvania legislators in 2009 to kill a state tax on gas drillers.” Research can be controlled and skewed indirectly by the sponsors.

After this quite depressing look at universities, we turned the discussion to what we can do to preserve the benefits of corporate sponsorship whilst dampening the costs. First, teachers must rally together to win back their voice. Adjunct faculty and graduate students are increasingly unionizing and pushing for better working conditions. Second, universities need more control over their corporate sponsorship. For example, if Pennsylvania State University had a contract with the Marcellus Shale Coalition stating that the funding would continue, even if negative results came out, the bias may never have occurred. Obviously, these two suggestions are not perfect and require refinement, but they are a step in the right direction.
Corporatization is here to stay. Universities must learn to control it.