Universities and Rent a Reputation Scams

The greatest asset that professors have is their intellectual integrity and independence. Now we learn from the Wall Street Journal (December 10; subscribers only) that corporations and public-relations firms are quietly renting the reputations of academics to help in various lobbying campaigns. Strikes me as a classic case of market enclosure: a shared resource is being bought off for private gain.

Here’s how the scam usually works. A company or a PR firm approaches an apparently sympathetic academic with ghostwritten opinion pieces. They offer money if he will simply sign the piece and submit it to a newspaper editorial page. In one case, the steel company Nucor recruited a University of Maryland business professor to publish articles in favor of steel tariffs. His “testimony” was then used in dozens of newspaper articles and letters to the editor to provide “objective” evidence that steel tariffs are a good thing. In another case, a PR firm, Leading Authorities, asked several outspoken corporate governance experts if they would criticize New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s investigation of the insurance industry. The firm was working for a crisis-management firm retained by AIG, one of the insurance companies targeted by Spitzer.

While all parties involved strain to defend the ethics of these situations, it is telling that the PR firms generally decline to discuss details and the professors refuse to name their PR handlers. It amounts to a “rent-a-reputation” hoax on the public and legislators, often facilitated by the press itself.

Amazingly, not a single college or university has rules requiring professors to disclose outside consulting arrangements to their academic institutions, according to a representative of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Professional Ethics. In short, the academic commons is wide open for plunder and abuse. Come and get it.

We’ve already seen the sell-off of publicly finance research through the Bayh-Dole Act and related technology transfer laws. We’ve seen how corporate partnerships with university skew R&D priorities from basic science to short-term, commercially oriented research. I’m wondering when the academy is going to take its responsibilities to the public seriously and begin to police its own.