Information Technology and Commercialization of Knowledge: Corporate Universities and Class Dynamics in an Era of Technological Restructuring

By Pietrykowski, Bruce | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Information Technology and Commercialization of Knowledge: Corporate Universities and Class Dynamics in an Era of Technological Restructuring


Pietrykowski, Bruce, Journal of Economic Issues


It is one of the unwritten, and commonly unspoken, commonplaces lying at the root of modern academic policy that the various universities are competitors for the traffic in merchantable instruction, in much the same fashion as rival establishments in the retail trade compete for custom. Indeed, the modern department store offers a felicitous analogy, that has already been found serviceable in illustration of the American university 's position in this respect...

--Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America

Originally published in 1918, the sentiments expressed by Veblen are at least equally applicable to the higher education landscape of the present. Indeed, the rise of electronic commerce set the stage for the development of on-line education. Universities are as attuned to the look and feel of their Web home pages as they are to their campus buildings and grounds. Web pages are seen as essential marketing tools in the quest for student enrollment and donor contributions (McCollum 1999, A25). In fact, some colleges have entered into agreements with for-profit companies to support their college Web site free of charge in exchange for on-line advertising space and the opportunity to market directly to their students (Blumenstyk 1999).

Veblen's comparison to retail merchandising was not only a reaction to the importation of business management practices to university administration--a leading theme of The Higher Learning in America--but was also intended as a criticism of the intrusion of vocational education into the college curriculum. "[T]here is also a wide-sweeping movement afoot to bend the ordinary curriculum of the higher schools to the service of this cult of business principles, and so to make the ordinary instruction converge to the advancement of business enterprise..." (1954, 205). The growing ties between business and the university disturbed Veblen. Harvard University's School of Business, begun in 1908, moved steadily toward instruction in applied business practices. The curriculum changed to meet the demands of the business sector. In 1914 a course entitled "Economic Resources in the United States" was restructured and renamed "Marketing." In 1919, with the support of Macy's department store vice president Percy Straus and Lord and Taylor's Samuel Reyburn, New York University opened its School of Retailing "to teach retailing in the city schools and high schools, with the overall intention of upgrading saleswork into 'skilled labor"' (Leach 1993, 159). In 1922 the American Hotel Association pioneered an innovative venture with Cornell University to establish a privately endowed school with the aim of providing skilled managerial labor for the burgeoning hotel industry (286). As these examples illustrate, the use of educational institutions for private profit is far from a recent phenomenon.

Veblen was also keenly aware of the pressure felt by administrators to increase enrollments and standardize the curriculum (1954, 103) so as to be able to compete effectively in the marketplace (106). These remain paramount concerns of university administrators today. However, the introduction of computer-based technologies may well signal a new terrain of struggle over the purpose and nature of higher education. Both critics and advocates alike see computer-based instructional technology ushering in a new era of labor market restructuring. The purpose of this essay is to critically assess the current state of technological change in the academy and in doing so to revive Veblen's insights into the purpose and structure of American universities.

Automation and Corporate Control of Higher Education

In a much-publicized on-line article, David Noble, York University professor of history, examined recent changes in the "delivery" of higher education (1998). He argued that along with the intensification of corporate-university relationships around research and product development a new interest has arisen in the commodification of college courses themselves. …

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Information Technology and Commercialization of Knowledge: Corporate Universities and Class Dynamics in an Era of Technological Restructuring
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