June 21, 2004

Stein book explores commercialization of academy


By Michael Terrazas

Two years ago, Emory used its triennial hosting of the Sam Nunn-Bank of America Policy Forum to examine the commercialization of American universities and the issues arising from it. Now organizer Don Stein, Asa G. Candler Professor of Emergency Medicine and Neurology, has edited a new book that approaches the question from a range of different perspectives.

Buying In or Selling Out? The Commercialization of the American Research University (Rutgers University Press, 2004) is a collection of 13 essays, all written by individuals who participated in the 2002 Nunn Forum. From Emory's own Jerry and Marie Thursby writing about university licensing, to Indiana University's Murray Sperber tying commercialization in research to the same phenomenon in athletics, to former Harvard president Derek Bok performing a cost-benefit analysis for universities venturing into for-profit enterprises, many sides of the issue are represented, and that's exactly what Stein wanted.

"This is a very complex issue," Stein said. "It's much more than just an isolated case of conflict of interest, so these authors were all picked based on their contributions to the field and to try to get a balanced perspective--from those who feel extensive commercialization of the academy represents a threat to academic integrity, to those who feel this is the only way to move universities forward in this day and age, to those who believe the university has much more of a vocational as opposed to purely academic function."

Stein himself has considered the issue from several perspectives. A successful researcher over the course of his nearly 40-year career, he knows what it means to spend huge amounts of time tracking down federal and private-industry grant money. As a former graduate school dean and vice president for research--both at Emory and at Rutgers, a public institution in New Jersey--he also has extensive experience on the administration side. Finally, at midcareer he spent time as a congressional fellow helping to craft legislation, so he knows about the government's role, too.

From each of these perspectives, Stein has believed there are serious problems presented by the ever-closer relationship among higher education, government and the free market. As universities compete for the research "stars" who bring in millions of dollars in grants, a two-tiered system not unlike that which exists in professional sports is created, he said. The "have-not" professors who do more esoteric research may find their work or laboratory space underfunded, while the stars themselves are under a tremendous amount of pressure since (especially in the biosciences) they often pay their own salaries with soft money.

"The free agency system in sports is exactly the model we're using," Stein said. "What kind of loyalty are you building in a person when you tell them, 'All we're interested in is how much money you generate, and the minute you stop generating that money, you're out of here.' That individual's loyalty is not to the institution--it's to the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation--and as soon as they get a better deal with a little more stability, they're gone."

The problem bleeds into the very quality of education students receive, Stein said, when top researchers are excused from teaching responsibilities, often leaving classes to be taught by adjunct faculty or graduate students. In his essay, which opens the book, Stein connects this directly to the fact that fewer and fewer American students are choosing careers in science. The pressure, he wrote, is just too great and the payoff too small.

He called these problems a "failure in strategic planning" by U.S. universities, and with Emory undertaking its own strategic planning process, its former graduate school dean has his own recommendation.

"We need to say, 'OK, we're going to invest, as a major part of our plan, in human development,'" Stein said. "Is it going to be a free giveaway? No, but it means a professor can count on a growing amount of endowment funding to take risks, to support interdisciplinary programs and esoteric research that--who knows?--10 or 15 or 20 years down the road may have great scholarly payoffs."

Ultimately, Stein said, it's a choice between whether the American university holds to its traditional mission or accepts a more vocational role in modern society. And, given the current economic environment, he is realistic about what can and can't be done.

"I'm not saying we should do away with all contacts with the commercial and corporate interests; that would be nonsense, and it's never going to happen anyway," Stein said. "But we need to find balanced ways to address these issues. We have a product, and that product is education and knowledge. We're Emory University, and we're supposed to be a great liberal arts university with all that that entails."