STERN: Yale, Inc.

A Stern Perspective
yale corporation copy
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Just days from now, corporate bigwigs will descend on campus. The CEO of Pepsi, the CEO of Chanel, the CEO of Time Warner, the former CEO of Goodyear, the former CEO of Palm Computing (makers of the Palm Pilot) and the former CEO of J.P. Morgan, among others, are arriving imminently.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianI am writing, of course, of the Yale Corporation. This weekend, the Corporation will hold one of its rare meetings — it meets just a handful of times a year — to discuss Yale’s future.

Fewer than half of the Corporation members were faculty or administrators in any university, much less the university they now govern. Instead, they are predominantly corporate leaders — chairpersons, board members, CEOs. They are unqualified to run a non-profit university. Yale is not, nor should it be, run like a corporation. Yet with corporate leaders running the place, Yale is at risk of growing its endowment while losing its soul.

At the most fundamental level, a university is different from a corporation because it is not driven by a desire for profits. Yale is not in the business of making money; it’s in the business of making educated people. Profits are easy to measure; academic progress is not. A desire for profits can make you do some ugly things — just ask the managing director of Bain Capital, who is on the Corporation. A desire for intellectual stimulation should not.

The corporatization of universities is already paying some terrifying dividends, visible in every facet of university life. From 2003 to 2009, even as endowments swelled, the number of colleges charging more than $40,000 a year increased from just 2 to more than 200 — considerably outpacing the market. Across the country, big business is sponsoring courses, endowing professorships and advertising on campus, thus endangering academic independence. Colleges have always been rightly criticized for underpaying their janitorial and food service staff, but, more and more, corporatized universities are hiring their workers through outside consultants, which lets colleges shirk their responsibilities when workers demand fair treatment.

This corporatization has taken root nowhere more disturbingly than in the sciences. Private corporations are increasingly footing the bill for academic research — a terrifying prospect for academic freedom. Industry-funded research is far more likely to result in the withholding of information and delays in publication, according to Harvard analysts Eric Campbell and David Blumenthal. Campbell and Blumenthal further found that university scientists who receive private funds are more likely to focus on research subjects with greater commercial appeal.

Increasingly, professors have financial ties to private companies and a financial stake in their own research. Indeed, as the British Medical Journal found, research funded by Big Pharma was four times more likely to reflect positively on the drug companies than independent research.

Yale is certainly not immune from the pressures of corporatization. Have you noticed Yale’s growing focus on the sciences? Thank the grant money that Yale rakes in. Wonder why Yale retains the outdated and offensive policy of legacy? Thank the healthy alumni donations Yale expects in return. Yale has truly become a moneymaking institution, and we can thank the executives at the top.

The decisions of Corporation members clearly reflect their corporate ideology. This goes beyond the almost fetishistic reverence for the endowment and focus on the sciences at the cost of the humanities. It goes to the issue of Yale-NUS.

Yale’s move to a country that represses free speech and made homosexuality illegal is part of a broader trend by corporatized American colleges to prove their international bonafides. In an unusually candid interview, former Brown president Ruth Simmons claimed that colleges are going international to “mak[e] themselves more attractive on the global stage.” But it may be more insidious than that. Many have noted that several members of the Corporation had personal relationships with and even financial ties to the government of Singapore.

This ideology may even extend to the contentious issue of divestment — there would be precedent for that claim. In the 1980s, the Yale Corporation repeatedly delayed divestment from apartheid-era South Africa because at least four Corporation members had financial ties to the country.

Business leaders respond to moral questions by attempting to maximize profits. They steer educational institutions toward moneymaking ventures. This is profoundly wrong.

When I bring up the corporatization of college to friends and acquaintances, they often respond with the corporate dialect of “getting ahead” and “competing in a changing world.” Yet education is not a zero sum game. It is not a contest with our global competitors. I am not a customer.

I am a student. My university should not be governed by CEOs. It should not be governed by managing partners or entrepreneurs. It should be run by professors, staff and perhaps even students.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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