Majoring in IBM

We all know that higher education is not really the ivory tower, isolated from the dirty commercial forces that churn around it. There are professorships named after rich industrialists; there are graduate schools that have a trade school dimension (hotel management, journalism); there are scientific fields that have enormous commercial significance (computer science, biotech).

And yet despite all this, it is truly outrageous to learn that large corporations are now using their money and influence to design curricula to serve their specific needs as employers. “Majoring in IBM” is how The Wall Street Journal (September 12) bluntly described it.

Besides IBM, BMW and Credit Suisse Group are paying for the development of courses that are expressly tailored to their needs. IBM has developed a new academic field that it calls “Service Sciences, Management and Engineering,” or SSME. It blends computer science, engineering, management sciences and business strategies as part of a larger “discipline” that focuses on improving client/service provider relationships. UC Berkeley actually provides a “certificate” in SSME.

The Bush Administration’s Department of Education is not only smiling on such developments, it is actively encouraging them. What is higher education for? To service corporate employers, of course. The idea of higher education being company-neutral, or even serving a larger public purpose is losing its force. Jennifer Washburn, author of University, Inc., considers the new arrangements “a breach of academic integrity.” But when big bucks come a-knockin’, who is the university president to turn them away? The ethic that Richard Nixon pioneered in the Watergate years — “money talks and bullshit walks,” or in today’s parlance, “pay to play” — is moving into University, Inc. Ivory tower? If only!

The corporate colonization of universities is not new or surprising, of course. The ethic really took off in the 1980s after Congress enacted the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities to patent the fruits of federally funded research. Soon after this beachhead of market activity was created, federal and state governments began cutting back their support of higher education. It was only a matter of time before corporations would recognize the opportunity and exploit it for all it’s worth.

Now we have “win-win” scenarios for companies and universities. Yet there are still “losers” — taxpayers, who are supporting the university infrastructure that is hosting all of these corporate-designed curricula, and students, who are indoctrinated into the IBM or BMW way of doing business, but not taught a larger, more critical perspective. Also lost in the shuffle is the idea that universities ought to design courses that directly advance public purposes, period. Will college courses soon bear corporate logos and sponsorships?