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Universities in the Marketplace

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Universities in the Marketplace

The Commercialization of Higher Education

Princeton UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Universities can profit from business, but they must use care and restraint to preserve academia's highest principles.

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Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable


Former Harvard University President Derek Bok warns that making commercial ventures part of the fabric of U.S. higher education endangers universities’ basic values and goals. However, he also gives compelling descriptions of why trustees and administrators are tempted to sign deals with corporations. He is realistic about the slim prospects for keeping such ventures away, especially since some - like sports teams - are already entrenched. Because Bok’s analysis is so deeply rooted in his years of experience leading Harvard, his proposed guidelines for how and when to allow big business on campus are particularly helpful. His views are occasionally unwarrantedly sunny, such as when he avers that faculty members rarely guide students into work that promotes the teacher’s financial gain. He also asserts that faculty must be wary of collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to get access to facilities and materials, even though funding unfettered research has become increasingly difficult. Furthermore, after asserting that doctors are alert to drug companies’ promotions in sponsored continuing education courses, he acknowledges research showing that doctors who attend such courses are more likely to prescribe the companies’ drugs. Despite such detours, finds this book extremely valuable for anyone who believes that academic freedom and integrity truly matter. Academic leaders should read Bok’s important, thoughtful and useful ideas on ways that colleges can minimize the risks of commercialization.


Values and Education

Americans often look to universities for people and philosophies they value highly, both for experts with special knowledge and for progress in basic research, theories and ideas. Because such expertise and information lead to applications and products that ease people’s lives and treat their illnesses, the media focuses increasingly on what happens on campus. Government officials tout universities’ benefits to their constituents, government agencies provide funding and businesses seek alliances. Recently, the number and magnitude of university and business arrangements has grown remarkably. This parallels a trend toward similar connections between the business world and various nonprofits in the arts, medicine and public education.

Commercial ventures have proliferated on university campuses during the past 25 years and threaten to grow exponentially. Corporations seek entrée into academia and university presidents and trustees increasingly look to business to provide income they cannot get - or cannot get so easily - elsewhere. These ventures focus on connections between the business world and: 1) sports teams; 2) technological patents and process...

About the Author

Derek Bok is the former President of Harvard University and Dean of Harvard Law School. He currently holds the 300th Anniversary University Professor and Faculty Chair at Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. He wrote The Shape of the River (with William G. Bowen) and The Trouble with Government.

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