Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education

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Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education Derek Bok. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003

In Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University and a former dean of Harvard Law School, is critical of recent developments in the research enterprise. The faculty, especially in medicine and the life sciences, are patenting and licensing publicly funded scientific discoveries and founding firms to exploit the commercial potential of their research. Universities are supporting these entrepreneurial faculty and sharing in the profits. Commercialization, Bok believes, leads to secrecy and conflicts of interest. It jeopardizes the academic mission and compromises academic values.

Bok's concerns are well founded. The purpose of the research university is to support the specialized and creative inquiry of individuals; the collective vetting, pooling, and accumulation of research results; and the sharing of research results on a global information commons. The profit motive fundamentally threatens the integrity of the university because it interferes with the processes by which research results are created, validated, and spread. A single university cannot unilaterally opt out of privatizing the information commons, or it will lose its scientists to other universities. The scientific community must self-regulate, and Bok's admonitions contribute to an urgently needed conversation.

Bok is also critical of recent developments in the teaching enterprise, especially the trends toward for-profit, online, and continuing education. In Bok's world, and this is the world he wishes to preserve, the faculty decide on matters of teaching and the curriculum, with the goal of meeting the needs of students and society. The profit motive undermines this noble goal because it shifts the focus away from providing the best learning experience and toward raising prices and cutting costs. Since students cannot readily compare the quality of different programs of study, they use institutional reputation as a proxy for quality. Universities can thus exploit their reputations and make money by cheapening the educational enterprise. Uok calls on universities to reverse this trend or to risk losing the trust and respect of the public.

Bok's concerns are out of touch with the world in which state universities operate. In this world, institutions are engaged in an expensive competition called star wars. The goal is to attract the best faculty, or the famous and the flashy, and thereby improve institutional rankings. The race for rankings has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it: everybody is running as fast as they can to stay in the same place-and they spend an awful lot of resources to achieve this stagnant outcome. The faculty at a research university easily see what counts and what doesn't, and they focus on research at the expense of teaching. In this world, it is not the profit motive but the race for rankings and the resulting emphasis on research that is driving up college costs even as it leads to a deterioration in the quality of teaching.

Bok is concerned that the commercialization of the university will create a two-tier faculty-those who go commercial and those who remain pure, with corresponding income differences. …