Sunday, February 6, 2011

Universities, Corporate Influence, and Academic Freedom

Jennifer Washburn has written an insightful brief article in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors:

--based in part on her 2005 book, University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

Washburn , a journalist, reviews some of the cases of conflicts of interest at major universities, such as the David Kern and Martin Keller episodes at Brown (on the latter see previous post, The university seems to have taken little of any action against Keller, their chair of psychiatry who brings in huge research grants from industry, despite his serious COI and his role in suppressing unfavorable data about the antidepressant Paxil in kids. Kern, by contrast, blew the whistle on corporate wrongdoing in the defense of public health, and saw his academic career destroyed as a consequence. Seems like Brown University stands ready to beat up any faculty member who upsets a major corporation, but is happy to look the other way at the wrongdoing of another faculty member who brings in a steady stream of corporate cash.

Washburn also cites a worrisome case at Berkeley around a $500M biofuels research alliance. Two resolutions were introduced into the faculty senate. One called for creation of a blue-ribbon faculty panel to oversee the BP alliance and draft protocols to govern similar corporate alliances so as to protect core university values and academic independence from corporate influence. (Note that nothing was said about stopping the alliance or others like it, just that such arrangements need independent oversight.) The second, introduced by a prominent scientist, stated that no faculty should infringe on the "academic freedom" of other faculty to deny them access to whatever research support they choose to pursue. The second resolution won hands down and the first was forgotten.

Washburn diagnoses this incident as a serious misunderstanding of the tradition of "academic freedom." University profs have today fallen into the trap of thinking that this as a purely individual right. Not so, argues Washburn. I think her analysis is worth quoting in detail:

If the academic community wants to address the formidable challenges raised by academic commercialism, it must reject this overly narrow, individualistic interpretation of academic freedom and return to the highly persuasive arguments about collective academic freedom and the public good that the AAUP originally advanced to justify academic freedom in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure and other early statements. This original defense of academic freedom may be roughly summed up as follows: in order for US universities to have the ability to fulfill their research and teaching responsibilities for the benefit of society, professors must be treated not as mere contract employees but rather as professional scholars who are free to think critically and speak openly without fear of arbitrary dismissal or other workplace censorship and retribution. The societal benefits that can emerge from this unique academic sphere include the provision of a broad-based, liberal education; expert advice (for government agencies, industry, and the broader public); pathbreaking scientific research; noncommercial research for the public good; graduate-level training; and other educational and knowledge functions uniquely performed by universities. This founding justification for why the public should grant tenure and intellectual freedom to professors is essentially one of “rational instrumentality”: if society is going to subsidize the university, and its professors are going to be asked to provide scholarship, expertise, and advice, then society must have bona fide assurances that those professors’ research and academic work are rooted in rigorous scholarship, scientific methods, and disinterested inquiry and have not been unduly influenced by outside special interests. This was a profoundly bold concept in 1915: before then, most university boards of trustees treated academic employees as workers for hire who could be dismissed at will.
However, as the AAUP’s founding Declaration makes clear, this extraordinary privilege of academic freedom also comes with responsibilities. In exchange for academic freedom (not to mention financial support), professors are expected to dedicate themselves to the advancement of scholarship, the search for truth, and knowledge generation for the public good. In the words of the 1915 Declaration, “The existence of this association . . . must be construed as a pledge, not only that the profession will earnestly guard those liberties without which it cannot rightly render its distinctive and indispensable service to society, but also that it will with equal earnestness seek to maintain such standards of professional character, and of scientific integrity and competency, as shall make it a fit instrument for that service.”

This is the underlying social compact into which the academic profession entered in order to ensure its intellectual freedom. Our current tendency to view academic freedom as a personal “right”—disaggregated from these collective commitments—has made regulating campus-based commercialism more difficult. Emphasis on individual rights has enabled powerful academic constituencies to use the banner of academic freedom to argue— inappropriately, in my view—for a laissez-faire approach to campus commercialism, which has made collective faculty attempts to rein in commercialism far more challenging.

Washburn goes on to say that the AAUP has been relatively toothless in defending this broader view of academic freedom--for instance, getting involved in the Kern case only after all the damage was done. She offers several suggestions as to how AAUP ought to partner with other non-profit organizations to better protect academic values from commercial corruption.


Bernard Carroll said...

Thank you, Howard… this is a very fine comment. It shows up the blowhards like Thomas Stossel of Harvard Medical School who rationalize their commercial ties by hand waving and hot air. Universities pay a price when they shift away from their primary function of developing new knowledge. If they tailor their research goals to the needs of industry – developing another me-too antidepressant or antipsychotic drug, for instance – then they are trapped by perverse incentives (money and perquisites) in an academically uninteresting paradigm. In other words they are bought, and the real work of the University doesn’t get done.

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It shows up the blowhards like Thomas Stossel of Harvard Medical School who rationalize their commercial ties by hand waving and hot air. Universities pay a price when they shift away from their primary function of developing new knowledge.