Business interests have been grazing in the groves of academe for at least a century, and their presence has always troubled people concerned with academic freedom and the ability of institutions of higher learning to pursue research unfettered by the dictates of profit-seeking.
Nearly fifty years ago, when Canadian Dimension was founded, the New Left sounded the alarm about the proliferating ties between industry and universities, with such prescient essays as E.P. Thompson’s “The Business University” and James Ridgeway’s The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis. However, the sixties
was also an era of increasing public funding of higher education, and government support enabled universities to operate outside the logic of the market to a significant degree. Our own neoliberal times have witnessed a retreat of the state that has left universities scrambling for funds. In Canada, as elsewhere, the business community has been eager to fill the breach with tax-deductible corporate contributions, lucrative research contracts and endowments (consider the TransCanada PipeLines Chair in Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing and the GlaxoSmithKline Chair in Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery at the University of Toronto).
Business, naturally enough, expects a return on investment, and it comes in many forms, including proprietary findings, participation in university administration and the ability to shape the research agenda. Now the processes of privatization and corporatization are threatening to transform universities into junior partners of industry, as they embrace the mantras of the market and subordinate the principles of liberal education to the imperatives of the pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry, the biotechnology industry, and a host of other commercial concerns – including university-grown enterprises.
If the university remains a last bastion of critical thought in an age of manufactured consent, that privileged position is increasingly precarious. The essays in this special feature document and analyze the scope and implications of the corporate conquest of the university in Canada. While taking the full measure of the problem, the authors are not prepared to concede defeat and propose realistic avenues of resistance for dissenters inside and outside the academic community.
This article appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canadian Universities).