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University Funding: Why There's Room For Corporate Cash in Academic Coffers


Previously published in the Vancouver Sun, December 4th, 1997


Andrew D. Irvine

 Author Notes

Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

 Essay - 12/4/1997

Now that George Bush has received his honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto is the debate over the corporatization of Canadian universities about to subside? Likely not.

As today's universities face continued government cutbacks they are being forced to seek alternative sources of funding. This inevitably leads to the corporate sponsorship of everything from library collections to classrooms. And this in turn leads to debates about academic freedom.

Many believe that donations made to universities, such as those by Barrick Gold Corp. where Mr Bush serves as an advisor, are no different than the sponsorship of tennis tournaments by tobacco companies: No matter how good the tennis, we know that it is not simply the love of sport which prompts the donor's generosity. Academic freedom is thus inevitably threatened whenever the objectives of a donor conflict with those of the recipient.

What critics of increased corporate sponsorship fail to recognize is that these same concerns also apply to the current funding of universities by governments. Short of raising endowments large enough to make our universities truly independent, the only real method for guaranteeing academic freedom is to increase the diversification of funding sources. By breaking the funding monopoly, universities become free to decline money from any particular source, whether public or private.

The pressure which a company such as Barrick Gold can exert on a university is insignificant when compared to that of government. Having a hundred, or a thousand, such funding sources makes it easier to say "No" to every one of them.

Universities, by their nature, are pluralistic places. They are populated by a diverse group of characters with a wide variety of opinions. They are where many of us get our first, modest introduction to the breadth of the human condition and to the give and take of ideas. Inevitably, they are the focus of controversy. For all of these reasons and more, they are where many of us choose to devote much of our professional lives.

As the old saying goes, universities have as their purpose the production, promotion and preservation of knowledge. That is, they are in large measure responsible for society's research, teaching and archiving. But as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed, "So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the fifteenth century." Thus it is the first of these three tasks, the production of knowledge, which typically separates universities from other institutions such as schools and libraries.

If the metaphor must be used, universities are society's knowledge factories. For raw materials they depend upon the free exchange of often controversial ideas. Hence the fuss that academics typically make about the importance of free speech and academic freedom.

But on this model the modern university is also sometimes seen to be, not only a factory, but a corporation as well. There is a "CEO" (a university president) who gathers together an "upper management" (a team of VPs) to set policy. There is a "middle management" (the deans and department heads) whose job it is to implement this policy. And there are the "factory men" (members of faculty), the men and women employed to do the grunt work. Members of the university Senate, like the shareholders of most corporations, do little except sit on the sidelines hoping that their stock will go up.

Despite its prominence and influence, this model of the university is mistaken. If correct, it would mean that students were customers. It would also mean that since collusion between management and consumer makes good business sense, this would make good academic sense as well. Yet this is simply not true.

If we want to preserve the university as a meritocratic institution in which the best ideas of the past three thousand years continue to inform discourse about the central problems of our time, we need to reject the idea that universities are simply factories manufacturing and selling products designed to satisfy whatever the current consumer happens to want. Some model of the university other than that of the corporation is needed.

Even so, rejecting the corporate model of university governance is not a reason to reject corporate funding. Luckily, there is a second model which is more faithful to the origins of the modern university. On this second model, universities are better understood as arising through an agreement between two communities. On the one hand there is a community of scholars, the university faculty. On the other, there is society itself, the community at large. Both communities believe they have something of value to offer each other and, in fact, this is true. On this view, universities are no more corporations than corporations are universities.

On this model, even with large scale corporate funding, "middle and upper management" need not replace the faculty and citizenry when it comes to setting the university's agenda. Whether the paymasters are public or private, it will be their job to see that the university has adequate resources, to see that the chalk is in the classroom. Of course this is not to deny that the issue of academic authority within the modern university is linked to that of funding. But neither is it to accept the view that diversified funding is the problem rather than the solution when it comes to the encouragement of independent thought within our universities.

Congratulations on your new degree, Dr Bush.

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