3. Big Business Seeks to Control and Influence U.S. Universities

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Sources: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY (CAQ), Title: “Phi Beta Capitalism,”* Date: Spring 1997, Author: Lawrence Soley; DOLLARS AND SENSE, Title: “Big Money on Campus,” Date: March/April 1997, Author. Lawrence Soley

SSU Censored Researchers: Angie Yee and Katie Sims
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Sally Hurtado, Ph.D.

Academia is being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Increasingly, industry is creating endowed professorships, funding think tanks and research centers, sponsoring grants, and contracting for research. Under this arrangement, students, faculty, and universities serve the interests of corporations instead of the public, and in the process, academic freedom and intellectual independence are sometimes sacrificed.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a number of programs serve corporate interests. One is the MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program, which charges 300 corporations from $10,000 to $50,000 per year in membership fees. The fees buy the expertise and resources of MIT’s departments and laboratories. Professors participating in the program can earn points towards professional travel, office equipment, and other prizes.

Although universities often claim that corporate moneys come without strings attached, this usually is not the case. For example, a British pharmaceutical corporation, Boots, gave $250,000 to the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) for research comparing its hypothyroid drug, Synthroid, with lower cost alternatives. Instead of demonstrating Synthroid’s superiority as Boots had hoped, the study found that the other drugs were bioequivalents. This information could have saved consumers $356 million if they had switched to a cheaper alternative, but Boots took action to protect Synthroid’s domination of the $600 million market. The corporation prevented publication of the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and then announced that the research was badly flawed. The researcher was unable to counter the claim because she was legally precluded from releasing the study.

Similarly, university presidents often sit on the boards of directors of major corporations, inviting conflicts of interest and developing biases that undermine academic freedom and interfere with the ability of the university to be critical or objective. For example, City University of New York Chancellor Ann Reynolds sits on the boards of Abbott Lab-oratories, Owens-Corning, American Electric Power, Humana, Inc., and the Maytag Corporation. Her $150,000 salary as chancellor is approximately doubled by what she gets as a board member. University of Texas Chancellor William Cunningham, after coming under public fire for conflict of interest, resigned his seat on the board of directors of Freeport McMoRan Corporation, and cashed in his stock options netting $650,422.

While university presidents and chancellors gain from their corporate activities, industry and business are returned favors in kind. University boards of trustees are dominated by captains of industry, who hire chancellors and presidents with pro-industry biases. New York University’s board, for example, includes former CBS owner Lawrence Tisch, Hartz Mountain chief Leonard Stern, Salomon Brothers brokerage firm founder William B. Salomon, and real estate magnate-turned publisher Mortimer Zuckerman.

Federal tax dollars fund about $7 billion worth of research, to which corporations can buy access for a fraction of the actual cost. This is largely the result of two 1980s federal laws that allow universities to sell patent rights derived from taxpayer-funded research to corporations—encouraging “rent-a-researcher” programs. The result has been a covert transfer of resources from the public to the private sector and the changing of universities from centers of instruction to centers for corporate R & D (research and development).

UPDATE BY AUTHOR LAWRENCE SOLEY: “Although the alternative press has increasingly examined the links between corporate and foundation-funded endowments, research grants, research centers, professorial consulting and endowing professorships, most daily newspaper stories approach each topic as though they are entirely separate issues. For example, The Los Angeles Times, on November 30, 1997, printed an editorial titled, ‘Foreign Gifts With Strings have U.S. Colleges Fretting.’ The editorial suggested that it was just foreign moneys that have the potential to pollute the impartiality of academic research and discourse. The editorial closed with the statement that the `universities receiving the highest level of foreign and domestic donations—Caltech, UCSF Medical School, Yale and Harvard—are among the nation’s best.’

“What the editorial writers fail to realize is that ‘elite’ institutions such as Harvard influence what is happening at other universities, just as The New York Times influences news coverage at other U.S. newspapers. Many universities, including Cal State Northridge, Mission College, and Cal State Fresno, which have traditionally considered themselves teaching institutions, have been trying to emulate Harvard and Yale by striking up relationships with the private sector. Since ‘Phi Beta Capitalism’ was written, relationships between universities and corporations have grown even cozier.”