Corporate cash has up, down sides

Should universities tack on advertising logos to their sports teams’ shirts, just so they can make millions of dollars in revenue? Should schools accept all unrestricted donations from companies to benefit research? How many classes should universities offer online?

These are tough questions, and as such, present tough choices for universities, said Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University. Bok spoke at a Graduate School of Education-sponsored lecture Oct. 2 about “The Commercialization of Higher Education.”

As universities vie for funding, commercialization is more widespread than ever, he said. To counter this, schools must lay down a few ground rules.

“Commercialization is not a new phenomenon,” said Bok to a rapt audience who crowded into the Class of ’49 Auditorium. “There is such a vast increase in the opportunities [offered] to universities to make money.”

Bok stressed that universities should think carefully about what they stand to gain and lose, but warned against spouting any “cheap” theory that dismisses all commercial efforts as harmful. Despite the legitimate worry that academic values will be compromised, unrestricted funds can supplement programs that do not have commercial value.

But Bok gave a statistic that elicited nods of recognition from the audience—10 percent of the first drafts of reports on drugs in the New England Journal of Medicine are written by pharmaceutical companies, and industry-supported research is more likely to yield favorable results.

Bok said unchecked commercialization in higher education threatens to diminish the trust of the public in university work. “Once universities begin to become suspect in a free society, you have lost something of great importance,” he said.

To protect the interests of universities in the face of commercialization, Bok suggested establishing ground rules, and urged faculty to not rely only on the university president to make decisions about funding.

“Yes, I think we can survive,” Bok said about partnering with business. “I don’t think we can [survive] if we let it go too far.”

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Originally published on October 16, 2003