On 12 October 1990, Ralph Nader gave a talk on “The Relationship Between the University and Business and Industry” as part of Wayne State University's conference, Ethics and the University. The talk was vintage Nader, a loose argument supported by hundreds of particular details, presented without notes. The conclusion was a call to arms: declining federal support of scientific research has tempted institutions of higher education (hereafter “universities”) to turn increasingly to business for help. Particular universities, even particular departments, have forged links with particular businesses. Business interests are taking over the university. The university will lose its soul unless it again becomes a place apart, a source of independent research and impartial judgment. The link between university and business must be broken once and for all.
I was one of two academics asked to respond. My response was not exactly a refutation. Nor will this descendant of that response be. Nader spotlighted an important problem, but he also, I believe, misunderstood it. He did not pay enough attention to its context. In context, the problem is more ambiguous than he made it out to be, and better contained through innumerable small decisions than resolved once and for all, a problem for university administrators rather than for an Old Testament prophet.
What should university administrators do? They should, I shall argue, approve many of the contracts by which university and business create the links Nader fears. However, they should also help formulate general policies governing such links, distinguishing clearly those links with business universities ought to allow or even encourage from those they should discourage or forbid. This chapter may provide a starting point for making such distinctions.