Just as campaigns to promote societal benefit show strength, activists admit setbacks in wider battleground for basic academic freedom
Confrontations over corporate interference are erupting at a series of major US universities in a mushrooming of the fronts on which students and faculty are struggling to protect academic missions.
Cases just in recent weeks include Brown University and the University of Pittsburgh weighing new ethics-related donor limits; Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University getting pushed to abandon companies with arguably inhumane operational practices; and the University of Pennsylvania and New York University appearing to discount alleged misconduct in exchange for access to moneyed research partners.
Individually, such challenges aren’t necessarily new. But the numbers and types and spread are being taken by experienced advocates of higher education as heralding a worrisome shift in a battleground where they’re winning some victories yet look increasingly outmanoeuvred over the long run.
On the one hand, it’s getting easier for activists in academia and beyond to identify a particular company or industry or market behaviour they consider objectionable, and organise effective protest actions, including boycotts, without suffering major financial repercussions.
“My instinct,” said Matthew Hoehn, a private investment manager who specialises in university endowments, “is that overall the trend will be toward stakeholder capitalism – where the Milton Friedman mantra of maximising shareholder value is being subordinated to some degree to this notion that a corporation has responsibilities to all of its stakeholders and employees and the people in its community.”
At the same time, higher education activists warn of malign corporate actors that have grown more much effective in working together, in co-opting systems of political power, and in jointly pushing back against exercises of academic freedom – with ever more sweeping and long-lasting effects.
“Some of it is scary,” said Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University who studies far-right political tactics in higher education. She saw well-devised attempts to identify academia’s more defenceless entry points – from governing board appointments down to student-government elections – and exploit them.
In terms of overt actions, the state of Florida has become the best known in recent months. There, the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has made a habit of loudly proclaiming policies that appear designed to stoke his political enemies and alarm their perceived targets as much as achieve any other stated outcomes. In the realm of higher education, they include prohibiting types of academic speech, restricting the teaching of gender and racial equity, undermining tenure and interrogating students and faculty on their personal viewpoints.
The ongoing spectacle has brought Mr DeSantis nationwide attention, record amounts of campaign donations and widespread acknowledgement as a 2024 presidential contender.
Mr DeSantis, though, is regarded by some of his opponents as just one scene in a much larger picture. That bigger context, said Ralph Wilson, a long-time investigator of corporate influence in US higher education, was the strategy of moneyed interests to sidestep public well-being and voter opinions by weakening the ability of universities and their scholars and researchers to provide the country with trusted expertise.
An organising road map, in Mr Wilson’s analysis, is the Lewis Powell Memo of 1971, in which the future US Supreme Court justice urged leading US corporations to fight the political power of academia in large part by becoming a more central part of it.
Mr Wilson has an academic background in mathematics and complex physical systems that he uses to lead an investigative venture known as Corporate Genome Project. One of Mr Powell’s central insights in the memo was his idea that universities would always be vulnerable to accusations that they weren’t representing diverse viewpoints.
“And so now, 50-some years later, after a couple of false starts, there is this massive industry that is exploiting his direction,” Mr Wilson said.
On the surface, he said, the fight appeared to be a simple matter of giving all people on campus the right to be heard when offering their perspectives. Yet that’s a “cynical misdirect”, Mr Wilson said, to create space in academia for partisan viewpoints favoured by wealthy donors that fail to earn merit through the rigour of scholarly analysis.
“Replacing ‘academic freedom’ with ‘free speech’ disintegrates the integrity of the academic institution, because ‘academic freedom’ includes responsibility, it includes being responsive to peer review, it includes a self-regulated system of scholars,” he said. “These donors, however, are not interested in a system of critical thought; they’re interested in a system of ideology and propaganda – not to be questioned but to be spread.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, students and faculty are questioning corporate influence in the case of James Wilson, director of the Gene Therapy Program at the Perelman School of Medicine. Professor Wilson runs biotechnology companies that have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding, and some university employees have begun suggesting publicly that such great financial value has protected him from consequences of an allegedly toxic working environment within the programme. A Penn spokesman said the university could not comment on specific personnel cases but took all employee workplace concerns very seriously.
Similarly, NYU Langone Health was described as seriously considering hiring David Sabatini, even after the prominent biologist was pushed out of three leading institutions – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – over sexual misconduct allegations. Professor Sabatini’s powerful defenders include William Ackman, a billionaire investor and hedge fund manager.
After weeks of protests from staff, students and alumni, the NYU medical school said that it had “reached the conclusion that it will not be possible for [Dr Sabatini] to become a member of our faculty”. Dr Sabatini, in a statement, said he had withdrawn his name from consideration because of “intensified” reporting of the “false, distorted, and preposterous allegations about me”.
Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, is getting campus pushback over plans to join Amazon in an artificial intelligence research partnership, given various critiques of the retailing giant over low pay and other instances of poor employee treatment. Princeton is under student pressure to stop using machinery made by Caterpillar because the company also supplies the Israeli government with equipment it uses to destroy Palestinian homes and farms.
Students at Brown and Pittsburgh have convinced their administrators to improve their ethics policies to exclude donors with poor records of social responsibility, though key details remain unresolved. Harvard University has been trying to assure students that its newly expanded School of Engineering and Applied Sciences won’t be an exercise in trading academic independence for donor dollars.
The Brown example seemed especially encouraging, said one leading critic of corporate influence, Isaac Kamola, an assistant professor of political science at Trinity College. At Brown, the president, Christina Paxson, accepted new organisational structures to review gifts to the university, with a particular eye on donors that promote science disinformation. It was a demonstration, Dr Kamola said, of the importance of empowering faculty governance mechanisms as a bulwark against growing income inequality in society.
But more typically in US higher education, said another expert, David Rapach, a professor of economics at Saint Louis University, the principles of shared governance are weakening.
“Universities are profoundly undemocratic institutions”, run primarily by politically appointed boards that are being pushed by partisan lawmakers to assert ever greater control, Professor Rapach said. Such lawmakers are seen as part of a cycle in which they are helped by wealthy donors to win office, where they cut public spending on higher education, and thereby leave institutions even more vulnerable to donor influence. “Financial elites who wield influence over institutions of higher education are unlikely to willingly cede power,” Professor Rapach said, “so I fear that fundamental change is a long way off.”
If anything, Duke’s Professor MacLean said, the situation was growing worse in the worst-affected states, with lawmakers rising towards Congress from local legislatures who appear even more extreme. The political influence “is going to be very, very hard to ever turn around”, she said.
Perhaps ironically, said Mr Hoehn, the co-head of customised asset allocation at TIFF, the setbacks to academic freedom are happening after a decade in which avoiding fossil fuel stocks turned out to be a wise investment policy regardless of the motivations, and where government demands for corporate disclosures in realms such as employment practices and the energy efficiency of manufacturing will make it even easier for future political activists to identify objectionable investments.
And because corporate leaders have grown so big and wealthy, he said, university leaders stand to face relatively little financial risk from complying with student and faculty demands for ethical investment practices. Amazon, as a potential example, should keep delivering strong stock gains even if the company relents to worker pleas for a few more dollars in hourly pay, Mr Hoehn said.
“Their profit margins could be damaged slightly” from across-the-board wage hikes, he said. “But a lot of these firms make a lot of money – it’s not as if their businesses are going to be irreparably damaged or something.”