Jennifer Washburn does a fantastic job of chronically the growing role of commercial interests in America’s public higher education system, especially in regards to technology transfer. Washburn, a freelance journalist, employs a journalistic/expose’ style to tell a compelling story about the ethical dilemmas inherent in a university research culture that is publicly funded but increasingly tied to the demands of profit-driven corporations- calling the trend the “single greatest threat to the future of higher education.”
“When researchers at the University of Utah discovered an important human gene responsible for hereditary breast cancer, for example, they didn’t make it freely available to other scientists, even though we- the U.S. taxpayers- paid $4.6 million to finance the research. They raced to patent it and gave the monopoly rights to Myriad Genetics, Inc., a start-up company founded by a University of Utah professor, which proceeded to hoard the gene and restrict other scientists from using it.”
Although Washburn focuses mostly on the growing incursion of corporate intrests into the research function of higher education, she also makes mention of the harm such incursions cause other (less-lucrative) areas of the university, stating:
“….these trends have put a squeeze on less commercially oriented fields such as the humanities and social sciences, which at many schools are being neglected or downsized.”
Not mentioned by Washburn, but equally troubling to me as a higher educataion policy wonk, is the increasingly narrow focus upon job training/rote skills acquisition by universities in an effort to be more responsive to industry needs. Thirty to fifty years ago industry trained workers, higher education educated them. The move from educating well-rounded citizens who could think, write, and synthesize to training workers for narrow occupational fields represents another major cost-savings to industry. No longer does industry need to train new hires and it routinely calls upon higher education to produce more graduates. The production of more graduates, beyond industry need, would certainly bode well for businesses who could then justify lower starting salaries.
Lest someone accuse me of not advocating for some focus upon employability, I would like to state that I do think universities should ensure that their graduates are employable upon graduation. I just often worry about the frenetic drive from a balanced approach to a narrow focus.
All in all, Washburn’s book begs us to pause and think about the future of a publicly funded higher education system that is increasingly serving the narrow needs of industry, in all aspects.