[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education

Derek Bok
Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003
233 pages, $22.95 hc

Steve Lockwood

American higher education has increased its emphasis on money, specifically how colleges can get more of it to operate in a climate of dwindling legislative support. In Montana, erosion of governmental funding for the six MUS campuses produces biennial nail biting that can be heard all the way down to the most junior lecturers. Over the past quarter century, colleges have been encouraged to form commercial partnerships with businesses in order to supply some of the vanished public funds. With these couplings come opportunities and risks that colleges typically are ill-prepared to evaluate. In his Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, former Harvard president Derek Bok reviews both opportunities and pitfalls and offers advice for negotiating them. However, despite book jacket praise from several influential university presidents, this advice is ultimately unconvincing.

Bok's organizational plan is straightforward: explain why he worries about commercialization, define the term and sketch its growth, provide three main areas of concern, supply courses of action for them, and finish with caveats about time running out for action. He says most research universities don't do enough to encourage "the behaviors needed for the sake of the students, the society, and the well-being of the institution itself" (24). And he concludes that the contemporary research university does not have sufficient incentives to "elicit all of the behaviors that society has a right to expect" (28), although he doesn't say what these are.

Bok chooses the three areas of athletics, scientific research, and education practices as those where commercialization has made greatest inroads. He begins with athletics since they are the "oldest form of commercialization in American higher education" (35). The examples and arguments Bok presents mostly summarize those in books like Ronald Smith's Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics (1988), Murray Sperber's Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education (2000)/1/, and Shulman and Bowen's The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001)./2/ After summarizing the main points of these works, Bok says that no first-rank college can legitimately argue that its academic status has improved as a result of its athletic teams' performance. He concludes that when the pressure mounts to expand athletic programs because they've had winning seasons, the most likely outcome is that "academic standards will be a major casualty of the process" (51).

Bok seems most interested in problems that surround commercialization of scientific research, especially in the high-stakes fields of medicine and genetics. Though wholesale distortion of research from basic to applied science has not occurred, nor have graduate schools shifted their emphases to favor theses and professors with commercial ties, some practices have become dangerous. Indeed, the problems are widespread enough that in 2001, ten leading medical journals agreed not to accept any articles that are not accompanied by assurances of freedom from corporate influence upon clinical trials (74). At the very least, industry funding can encourage the direction of research and the visibility of those engaged in it, and these tactics can distort the public debate about important issues: the nutritional values or lack of them of particular foods, the effects of auto and industrial emissions on the environment, the repercussions of drilling for gas and oil on the Rocky Mountain front, effects of logging and dragnet fishing on salmon populations. The danger to universities generally is that people lose confidence in scholastic research, which no longer seems disinterested when propped up by corporate funds.

The third main area of commercialization is the education process itself, the staffing and delivery of courses. Bok summarizes briefly the history of correspondence schools and university extension courses, and says the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Both have been run by universities as profit centers, staffed with second-class, low-paid instructors, and the funds have been diverted to other programs. Conflicts of interest can arise in continuing-ed courses, for example, those offered by medical schools where nearly one-third of the expenses are paid by corporations who want their brands prominently featured. Although med schools deny it, such corporate money brings pressure to present certain findings and not others or to concentrate on certain treatments (for example, ones requiring drugs) to the exclusion of others, and in this way distorts what physicians learn and what's passed on in practice to patients.

Having summarized the most likely areas of commercialization on campus, Bok spends the second half of the book explaining why and how the process leads to damaging consequences for many schools, and suggests how to avoid them. Bok lists three main dangers of commercialization: undermining academic values, damaging the academic community, and risks to institutional and professional reputations. Curriculum, he says, should be shaped by faculty, and not influenced unduly by political sentiment, powerful regents, or wealthy donors. The profit motive shifts this focus from supplying the best learning experience toward raising prices and cutting costs without losing customers. Such behavior sets the wrong example for students. "Helping to develop virtue and build character have been central aims of education since the time of Plato and Aristotle. After years of neglect, universities everywhere have rediscovered the need to prepare their students to grapple with the moral dilemmas they will face in their personal and professional lives. In colleges and professional schools alike, courses on practical ethics are now a common feature of the curriculum" (109).

The academic community can suffer damage from pressures that divide colleagues and generate suspicion and tensions. Money is not the only cause of self-serving conduct on campus, but it's a particularly powerful motivator to place private interests before those of students and colleagues. When schools behave too much like corporations, Bok says, they likewise find themselves in employment discussions not with professors but with agents or bargaining units. If they feel exploited, faculty and graduate students will see less reason to avoid exploiting the university's name and facilities for economic gain.

But the major threat from commercialization is loss of reputation, the undermining of public trust in the university as the seat and arbiter of objective, disinterested teaching and research. Schools should be in that category of institutions devoted to unselfish goals for the public good; but as they become wealthier, "they begin to inspire envy more easily than affection" (116), and as trust declines, the risk of government intervention increases--edicts, for example, to increase "accountability" and "responsiveness" to taxpayers.

Bok offers a number of strategies designed to correct commercial excesses in athletics, science research, and education delivery, and these seem sensible suggestions, backed by Bok's distinguished record as a faculty member and past president of Harvard. But most of these suggestions have yet to be tried, let alone proved, as this partial list should make clear.

  1. Bok says that on a campus committed to big-time football and basketball (presumably this means division 1A schools), a president today "would find it impossible" to take resolute action against its many excesses. Yet, he gives only the example of Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago who did just that by removing the school from the Big Ten and abolishing those sports. President Gordon Gee at Vanderbilt announced he's abolishing the athletic department and reorganizing the sports programs to insure that athletes are students first, athletes later (Anchorage Daily News, 21 Sept. 2003, H3). Maybe Gee was inspired by this book.

  2. Bok makes the mildly surprising claim that the profit motive is an apt incentive for good teaching, but he gives no instances of such a technique working. He claims that for the profit motive to produce the best possible education, three conditions must be met: students must know what they need, they must be able to evaluate the available alternatives and make reliable choices, and these choices must correspond well with the needs of society--including preparation for citizenship. So far, he says, these conditions have not been met. How does he know any of this?

  3. For education, the Internet's best uses occur in small, "highly interactive classes that make good use of simulations, case-method discussions, games, and other means of provoking discussion among students and instructors. But this is the most expensive type of distance education..." (170). Faculty and administrators who've taught via the Internet may agree with Bok, but again, where's the proof?

  4. Bok says online courses have been successful in the vocational training market, which annually totals nearly $40 billion (90). And American universities are generally well-respected around the world, so a huge potential market for degrees via the Internet may exist outside the U.S. Bok thinks that in this arena, then, why shouldn't universities enter the field and cater to consumer and vocational tastes, and earn money otherwise forfeited to virtual universities like the University of Phoenix? It would be helpful if he cited some figures and named some schools who are making money now. If the potential is so attractive, wouldn't New York University, Temple (101), and Columbia have continued their ballyhooed Internet offerings?

  5. When he says presidents and deans could do much more to improve faculty teaching and to measure student learning, including extensive faculty development, we may agree, but where have these practices paid dividends so far?

  6. Bok claims that trustees (regents) often are too untrained in university procedures and ethos to provide effective defenses against commercialization--and are often powerful boosters for it. Surely, examples can be provided, both good and bad.

  7. He claims administrators, unlike their business manager counterparts, have little incentive for improving efficiencies. If a public institution earns a visible surplus, legislatures sometimes simply reduce funding proportionately (101). Where has this happened?

  8. He says "the last line of defense for basic academic standards is an adequate and stable level of support" (196) from government funding, and that "financial stability is the ultimate guarantee against irresponsible entrepreneurial behavior" (197). Those of us working at schools whose total endowments don't come close to the interest earned by Harvard's would like to see results of this support in action. Clear positive results would make a powerful argument in Montana, where so much government support has disappeared in the last 15 years.

In fact, the erosion of academic standards and higher ed reputations has been occurring gradually enough that many people can't remember when universities bloomed with better odor. So if Bok's proposals aren't backed by numerous examples of success, then their value is limited--as proposals to right what's wrong with academia. Does it simply join the list of wake-up calls reinvigorated by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987)? Yes, but with an important difference: this one comes from administration--from a respected scholar, former law school dean, and former president of arguably the most prestigious American university. When a professor so positioned at an institution so prosperous--a nearly $20 billion endowment (104)--worries about money undermining the moral authority of American higher ed, perhaps the rest of us should pay attention. Maybe other scholars will provide the evidence Bok has omitted. Until they do, his arguments will remain unconvincing.


  1. See Paul Trout's Review of this book in the Winter 2001 issue of The Montana Professor.[Back]

  2. See Steve Lockwood's review of this book in the Fall 2002 issue of The Montana Professor.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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