Big Money on Campus
Newt Gingrich thought he had a good deal going. Two Georgia colleges gave the Speaker of the House of Representatives an easy way to process political contributions. He would teach a course, "Renewing American Civilization" at Reinhardt and Kinnesaw colleges, and GOP contributors would pay for it. Because the money was going to a non-profit, instead of a political organization, the donors could write the sums off their taxes. Maybe they would be more generous. Only problem was, it was illegal.The House ethics committee concluded that Gingrich violated federal campaign financing laws because the course's purpose was indoctrination rather than instruction, and because it was improperly funded by a Republican political action committee and corporate contributors. Gingrich left an easy trail for the ethics committee to follow. He solicited contributions for the course himself with a letter saying it would be used to recruit Republican acivists for the 1996 campaign. "Our goal is to have 200,000 committed citizen activists nationwide before we're done," Gingrich wrote.In another letter, Gingrich invited corporate contributors to "participate in the course development process." Then he mentioned them in the lectures. He described Hewlett-Packard Corporation as "one of the great companies in American history" and Scientific Atlanta as "a model of the spirit of invention and discovery." He showed corporate promotional videos and other public relations propaganda from contributors in class.From the media coverage, you would think arrangements such as Gingrich's are unusual within the ivied walls of academe. They aren't. In reality, colleges and universities will turn tricks for anyone with money, and about the only ones with money are corporations, corporate foundations, tycoons and government agencies.Using universities to further political or corporate objectives didn't start with Newt Gingrich or his underwriters. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government used grants to enlist universities into the Cold War. The grants weren't limited to the hard sciences; social scientists also became Cold War soldiers, as Christopher Simpson documents in his book Science of Coercion. Federal grants, along with the unprecedented baby boomer enrollment, kept universities prosperous into the mid-1970s.But the federal government scaled back its grantmaking in the mid-1970s as the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. Between 1970 and 1974, federal expenditures on scientific research increased just 2.5 percent, far less than the inflation rate. During the same period, college enrollments stopped growing as quickly.Rather than scaling back, universities regeared, hoping that corporations could use the resources idled by federal grant reductions. The corporations could. Now corporations and their foundations exert the same depth of influence on academia in the 1980s and 1990s that the federal government did in the 1950s and 1960s. Universities had no trouble finding new masters.Funding CurriculumOne of the biggest players influencing college curricula with big money is the John M. Olin Foundation. Set up in its present form by an ultraconservative munitions manufacturer in 1977, Olin spent $12 million last year in grants to universities and colleges. At Boston University, Olin underwrote a journalism course, "Reporting Military Affairs," designed, according to a former dean, "to make journalists more sympathetic to the military."Olin's biggest success story may be in the way it helped an extremist, fringe philosophy of law gain a secure place in the nation's most influential law schools. Olin funds "Law and Economics" programs at the University of Chicago, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, George Mason, Georgetown, and Duke universities, among others, paying out $2.7 million in 1995 alone. Kevin Phillips, a Republican critic of the ultra-right, has written that the programs preach that "commercial selection processes in the marketplace could largely displace government decision-making."The "Law and Economics" programs sometimes pay students for attending their seminars, provide research funding to professors who use a "Law and Economics" framework, and give cash awards to students who write papers on "Law and Economics." As a result, "Law and Economics" has become a mainstream legal philosophy, accounting for "roughly 25% of the scholarship in the Yale, Harvard, Chicago and Stanford law reviews," a law review article reported.Grantmaking for ProfitIt is so easy for big money to buy influence at universities. University presidents sign on the dotted line to give away the resources they have to offer to corporations. In exchange, they get money for research, endowed chairs and the chance to sponsor "research centers" that provide industries with public relations machinery outside of their corporate offices.Universities regularly sign contracts -- commercial agreements -- that hand over their research apparatus to corporations. The contracts commonly contain gag clauses that restrict how and when research findings can be publicly disclosed, particularly in the biomedical fields. The majority of companies signing research agreements with universities require that findings be kept confidential until they have time to file a patent, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This gives the companies a competitive advantage with follow-up research. It also makes it more difficult for other scientists to replicate the study. Such secrecy is impeding scientific research, says Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute."Open discussion among scientists, even about the preliminary results of ongoing experiments... can play an important part in advancing research," says Rosenberg. Now secrecy clauses impose new "ethical and operational rules of business" on scientific researchers that harm open discussion.Some contracts go beyond restricting when research findings can be made public. They give the corporate contractor the right to determine whether research findings can ever be made public.At the University of California -- San Francisco (UCSF), clinical pharmacist Betty Dong conducted research comparing Synthroid, a drug used by hypothyroid patients, with lower cost alternatives. But the research was paid for under a $250,000 contract UCSF entered into with the Boots Company, the British pharmaceutical corporation, that markets Synthroid.The trouble began when Dong's study failed to demonstrate Synthroid's superiority, as Boots had hoped for. Instead, Dong found that the lower cost drugs had the same effect as the name brand drug. Consumers could potentially save $356 million annually if they switched from Synthroid to the lower cost alternatives -- if the information was made public. But then Synthroid's domination of the $600 million synthetic hormone market would be undermined.When Boots discovered that Dong intended to publish her findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, it blocked publication. The company had the right to censor the work under provisions of its research contract. The firm also publicly attacked the study, claiming that the research was severely flawed. Dong was unable to counter these attacks because she could not make the study public.Funding ResearchBy endowing professorships, corporations have the dual effect of influencing university curriculum and research agendas. Universities originally established "named" professorships as a fundraising device to both pay for a professor's salary and honor nationally known scholars associated with the school. For example, Harvard University's Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry honors the university's first professor of the history of art, who died in 1898. Other professorships are named for deceased alumni, who bequeathed their estates to their alma maters.Increasingly, however, endowed chairs are funded by and named for corporations, conservative foundations and wealthy patrons, rather than deceased scholars and alumni. The result, says Cal Bradford, a former fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute for Public Policy, is that the chairs determine "what universities will teach and research, what direction the university will take...""If universities would decide that they needed an endowed chair in English, and then try to raise the money for it, it would be one thing," says Bradford. "But that's not what happens. Corporate donors decide to fund chairs in areas that they want research done. Their decisions determine which topics universities explore and which aren't."Bradford experienced the corporate influence on the direction of universities first hand -- the University of Minnesota did not renew his contract after he criticized university-corporate ties.Do you want to be the Bell South Professor of Education through Telecommunication at the University of South Carolina? How about the Reliance Corporation Professor of Free Enterprise at the University of Pennsylvania? Are you interested in travel? Why not take on the Carlson Travel, Tour and Hospitality Chair at the University of Minnesota? Someone is needed to carry on the torch of a defunct savings and loan whose officers were convicted of embezzling $85 million -- you can do so as the Lamar Savings Professorship of Finance at Texas A & M, funded by the S&L before its downfall.Most of these professorships, all endowed in the late 1980s and 1990s, come with strings attached. In taking money from Saul Steinberg, head of the Reliance Corp., for the Reliance Corp. Professor of Free Enterprise, the University of Pennsylvania agreed that he or she would be "a spokesperson for the free enterprise system" and engage "twice a year in employee training or another aspect of Reliance operations."The University of Minnesota's Carlson Chair was endowed by the owner of the university's preferred travel agency. The quid pro quo is not too onerous: its recipient need only conduct research on issues of interest to the travel industry. An executive with the Minnesota Restaurant, Hotel and Resort Associations, praised this deal, saying, "we'll have data on who comes to Minnesota and why, why people fail to return, and other statistics that we need to make decisions about advertising, marketing and promotion."The list goes on. At the University of Memphis, based in Federal Express Corp.'s hometown, the company endowed the Federal Express Chair of Excellence in Information Technology. The professor also heads the Federal Express Center for Cycle Time Research, a rsearch center devoted to studying overnight air delivery.Research CentersThese research centers are obviously not always what they seem. Unlike other university research centers, these corporate-funded ones have highly targeted research agendas which benefit company profit margins. The namesake of the Johnson Controls Institute for Environmental Quality in Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the manufacturer of electrical controls for heating and air conditioning. Its $200,000 a year grant supports research on how "workers and students can be more productive when a building's heating, cooling, lighting and sound systems are properly controlled," according to a Johnson Controls Inc. spokesperson.The Maguire Oil and Gas Institute at Dallas' Southern Methodist University, funded by the CEO of Maguire Oil Co., tries to get financial gain less through research than through shaping the political context in which its business operates. It churns out such reports as "Oil and Environmentalism Do Mix," which laments that "instead of harmonizing oil and gas discoveries with environmental goals, [environmental laws] have resulted in an extravagant amount of federal land being placed off-limits to oil and gas leasing... Experience in Alaska, Michigan and Wyoming show that oil and gas activity, with proper care and supervision, can be compatible with the environment." Such writings gain an aura of objectivity because they are produced at universities, rather than corporate public relations departments.The Highest BidderOne reason corporations look to universities for research assistance can be explained by economics: It is cheaper to have research done at university laboratories, built and partially funded with taxpayer and tuition dollars, than to build and equip comparable corporate labs. Graduate students provide a large pool of research assistants who are paid far less than their counterparts in the private sector. Corporations know they can get research done cheaper, without paying the full price tag.Rust-Oleum Corp. turned to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a few years ago to test a latex paint after its labs were unable to determine why it was corroding so quickly. University researchers, using tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer-provided equipment, solved Rust-Oleum's problem in exchange for a few thousand dollars. But such practices are not without their costs -- to the students. Research costs are passed on to students in the form of higher tuition -- the students' tuition helps build the facilities that the corporations so easily commandeer.Congress gave corporations another big eason to strike up relationships with universities when it passed the Dole-Bayh Act in 1980. The act, also known as the University-Small Business Patents Procedures Act, allows universities to sell the results of federally funded research to corporations, often at a fraction of the cost of doing the research. Corporations have learned that they are able to buy federally funded research results by investing a few research dollars in universities.For example, a December 1992 agreement gave Sandoz Corp. the rights to research discoveries made at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Harvard University teaching hospital, even if Sandoz did not fund the research. Sandoz could claim the rights to federally funded research if the scientist conducting the research had accepted any Sandoz money for another project.The public relations and tax benefits to corporations provide them with another healthy incentive. They receive tax breaks for their contributions to universities, even when the contributions advance the interests of their company. For example, banks' contributions to the Garn Institute at the University of Utah are tax-deductible, since they are given to an ostensibly non-profit, educational institution. But the Institute largely functions as a lobby group for its funders in the banking and S&L industries. Corporations buy a facade of objectivity which their own trade and lobbying groups don't have.Finally, corporate contributors can count on universities when they're in a bind. For example, at the University of Texas at Austin, the Dean of the College of Communication ordered the chair of the Department of Journalism not to testify in a lawsuit against the owner of The Dallas News, the Belo Corp., charging that the Belo Corp. engaged in unfair business practices that drove the competing Dallas Times Herald out of business. The journalism department chair had conducted research showing that The Dallas News monopolized popular syndicated features, which contributed to the Times Herald's demise. But Belo had donated $300,000 to the University of Texas's College of Communication.To rationalize his order, the dean dipped into his academic bag of tricks, saying, "There is an unwritten rule in the Department of Journalism, and the college in general, that says a professor should not testify in a trial against a newspaper."There is another unwritten rule in academe, which explains why universities now attend to the interests of their well-heeled patrons, rather than to students. It's the old adage, "Whoever pays the piper calls the tune."