MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXX No. 5
May / June 2018
A Letter to the Class of 2018
Is This Any Way to Run a University?
Women at MIT
The Obligations of Citizenship
Diversity is Not Enough
The Positive Near-Term Picture
for Federal Research Funding
Engineering Enrollment Data at MIT
Student Leaders Emerge at MIT Conference
to Address Danger of Nuclear War
Looking Forward/Looking Backward
Across the Retirement Line
Promoting Mental Health
and Well-Being at MIT
from the 2018 Senior Survey
Printable Version

Is This Any Way to Run a University?

Ruth Perry and Yarden Katz

In 1972, when I (Ruth Perry) first came to MIT, the federal government – and especially the Department of Defense (DOD) – subsidized the Institute’s budget to a large extent. A number of faculty and students objected to the way this funding by the war machine changed research priorities and slanted educational objectives. As federal funding was withdrawn, the Institute increasingly turned to corporations for financial support. The change was not salutary. Federal funding had trickled down better; those DOD dollars sometimes subsidized the teaching of literature and philosophy and projects in the arts; and while there was unease about the agenda of the Pentagon’s research, it seemed right and proper that the federal government should support higher education beyond the narrow scope of applied research.

Corporate funding was neither so generous nor so far reaching. There was less tolerance for educational purposes and instead of a broad mandate for the public good (or the rhetoric for it) these new sponsors focused more narrowly on their own special business interests. In addition to a more instrumental focus, this funding did not last so long, results were expected more quickly, and there was little interest in “basic” research. Those of us who had opposed the corrosive effects of DOD funding were surprised, perhaps naively, to realize that this new corporate funding stifled the spirit of free inquiry even more than federal arrangements had done. Fifty years later, universities themselves have been transformed to run like corporations, top-down and hierarchical, relying on faceless bureaucracies rather than collegial debate and decision-making, viewing research through the same instrumental gaze as their corporate sponsors, and expanding their managerial capacities at the expense of research and teaching.1 

By now, the line between education and business has all but dissolved. Corporations lease campus land for their commercial buildings; they help to direct research in campus labs; they subsidize programs designed to teach students how to fit into existing corporate structures. Students are being prepared for lives as cogs in the machine – rather than as engaged citizens of the world.

The atmosphere encourages students to work on their “pitches” rather than identify problematic assumptions in arguments. Students’ imaginations are trained to develop new commodities and open new markets rather than to think about ways to achieve human fulfillment for all. We should be cultivating their minds as broadly as possible rather than training them to fill cubicles in bland multinationals. We end up reproducing the view that the “real world” is inevitably one of competition, anxiety, long hours of work, isolation, fear, and self-doubt.

MIT, like its peer institutions, has formed many corporate partnerships. The word “partner” itself deserves some attention. Used as a legal term in the eighteenth century, “partner” has always covered a multitude of sins. The legal meaning was invented to create a legal entity to share profit but avoid personal liability. Nowadays it is used as a blanket term for those who share their lives, a gender-blind term designed to neutralize the sexual arrangements it designates. In the present context, “partnering” continues to mean what it meant in the eighteenth century: an association whose precise terms are hidden, but whose public aspect is neutral, professional, and sanitized.

MIT’s partnerships are generally negotiated confidentially, without input from the greater campus community. These partnerships have become more normalized over time, and more explicit. Last year, IBM committed 240 million dollars to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) research laboratory at MIT, whose aim is to commercialize AI research for various industries (including defense).

This corporate-academic hybrid gives IBM access to Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and Course 9 (Brain and Cognitive Sciences) faculty, students, and resources. While it is hard to judge precisely, as only those involved know the terms of the arrangement, IBM is bound to have immense power in shaping MIT’s research in this area. This partnership is just one of many to make up MIT’s unfortunately named “IQ” (Intelligence Quest) initiative.2 Yet such alliances are presented as if there’s no tension between the corporate agenda and MIT’s professed educational and research mission.  

When I (Yarden Katz) first came to MIT in 2007 for graduate school, I learned that such corporate partnerships are business as usual on campus. But it took more time for me to see, through conversations with fellow graduate students, that this is more than just a story of academics pursuing an agenda in line with their corporate sponsors – that academic inquiry itself is being transformed to take on an increasingly corporate character.  Academic discourse is now drenched in public relations-speak and a hyper-masculinized rhetoric of “impact” and “innovation,” which all too often means funneling the labor of a broad, and generally publicly funded, academic collective, towards the creation of private wealth for the few.

This character of the university manifests in part through the relentless pursuit of “intellectual property.” The Institute embarks on a kind of patent colonialism, seeking to parcel off the largest piece of collectively developed knowledge and technology for its own startups and industry partners. Whole wings of the university can be mobilized to rehearse talking points in the service of legal battles, such as the one waged over patents to the genome-editing system CRISPR.3 Media spectacles are staged and millions are spent.4 The result is a profoundly anti-scientific discourse that poisons the very well of scientific collaboration that it pays lip service to.

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In the past, groups like Science for the People, born out of resistance to the Vietnam war, protested the accelerating corporatization of academic science. Sheldon Krimsky, writing for the group’s magazine in 1985, concluded that it would soon be hard to find biomedical researchers on campus without some ties to the drug industry.5 Krimsky turned out to be correct6 but his prediction applies far beyond biomedicine.

MIT in fact helped extend and normalize the corporate model of research that Krimsky and others worried about. The MIT Media Lab, for instance, is funded by “member companies” who in exchange receive IP rights to the laboratory’s work. The members list includes powerful corporations from nearly every industry that urgently needs to be reimagined: the fossil fuels industry (Exxon-Mobil), big pharma (Novartis, Hoffman-LaRoche, Takeda), big tech (Google, Twitter, IBM, Intel, Cisco), weapons developers (Northrop-Grumman), and big media (21st Century Fox, Comcast, Verizon).

Nonetheless, the belief that scientific inquiry is always disinterested, apolitical, and value-free is entrenched enough so that some academics still believe that their work is entirely uncompromised by corporate and military ties. Yet in so many areas that demand critical social engagement alongside techno-scientific knowledge, this has proved illusory.

For one, the mainstream conversation is now waking up to the perils of a world governed by Silicon Valley and the ensuing damages of “surveillance capitalism.”7 Is it realistic to expect academics to scrutinize these techno-political systems, much less to help build alternatives, when their institutions share so much with the owners of these systems?

Even as a critical conversation about the techno-world emerges in the mainstream, MIT continues to look to Silicon Valley for wisdom and guidance. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, who notoriously proclaimed the end of individual privacy,8 was appointed this year to be special MIT fellow and advisor to the university’s AI initiative.9 In a recent fireside chat at the launch of MIT “IQ”, President Reif contrasted Alphabet – a company where all activities can be managed in top-down fashion – with universities, which are more decentralized. Reif then asked Schmidt, “What can a place like MIT – what can academia do? How can we help?”, essentially asking, how can MIT help, and perhaps be more like, the Googles of the world.

The university’s business model entangles it in compromises that are rarely explored on campus. For instance, The Broad Institute has licensed its CRISPR genome-editing patent to DuPont for use in developing agricultural applications.

This was spun by the institute as “democratic” licensing,10 although it is hard to square this rhetoric with DuPont’s size and dominance, and its decades-long record of polluting the environment with the toxic chemical C8, which has since been linked to various cancers – the same diseases that the Broad Institute claims it is seeking to understand and alleviate. Our university has ties to corporations that have interests and policies antithetical to our declared educational and ethical mission.

In 2012, the Broad also received a $32.5M commitment from Seth Klarman’s foundation to launch the Klarman Cell Observatory.11 Klarman is the manager of the Baupost Group, a hedge fund that holds much of the debt over Puerto Rico. As the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria and suffocated by these financiers, there were campus protests against Baupost across the country.12 Students at universities whose endowments are invested in the hedge fund, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, called on their schools to divest. MIT, however, has remained silent.

Some students, working at the margins, are the exceptions to this picture of the university. But it is easier for the administration to promote start-up culture and claim to “hack” at big issues than it is to listen to their voices. Why else would the administration refuse to embrace the guidance of passionate students who, in a 116-day long sit in, showed MIT the way to fossil fuel divestment? Instead, the administration put on “Solve,” a TED-like networking opportunity for university decision-makers, their connected donors, and “members” who pay $5,000 to participate. With respect to the climate, Solve is arrogantly premised that “We” at MIT can “Solve” the climate using our technological prowess. This technocratic framing sidelines the important political and social dimensions of climate issues. It also further marginalizes other communities, outside the wealthy networked spheres that Solve is targeting, that have not only thought of different ways to care for the earth, but are also likely to pay the heaviest price for climate catastrophes.

While the effects of corporate “partnering” on science and engineering are the easiest to see, the business model of our university can also cast a shadow upon subjects in the humanities and social sciences. The profit motive is not a good model for either research or education. It commodifies thought and emphasizes what can be quickly done, is “hot,” or “trendy” over the thorough, painstaking, and valuable work that contributes to our collective mosaic of knowledge. It fosters competitiveness rather than cooperation, puts constraints on free speech about funders and their business interests, and encourages cynical materialism at the expense of idealism. It turns students into consumers and forces faculty to offer what “sells” rather than what contributes to a meaningful education. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as commodities and how to “market” themselves in a ruthlessly competitive environment. Attending university becomes more of a resume-enhancing activity than an opportunity for enrichment through study and discussion with others.

The space for seeking un-pragmatic truths on campus is shrinking. It is collapsing under the weight of marketing and markets. Faculty ought to learn from, and make alliances with those students, community members, as well as colleagues at neighboring schools who want to resist these trends. Working together, perhaps we can make more room for different kinds of thinking on campus.


1 For an analysis of the expansion of administration in universities, see Ginsberg, B. The Fall of the Faculty (2011).

2 See Manning, K. R. Naming the MIT Intelligence Quest. MIT Faculty Newsletter.

3 See Katz, Y. Who Owns Molecular Biology? Boston Review (2015).

4 For MIT’s involvement in media war over CRISPR, see Hall, S. The Embarrassing, Destructive Fight over Biotech’s Big Breakthrough. Scientific American (2016), and Katz, Y. Patently Biased. Jacobin (2016). Also: CBS 60 Minutes episode on CRISPR, Apr. 29, 2018.

6 See Angell, M. Is Academic Medicine for Sale? The New England Journal of Medicine (2000) and Mirowski, P. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011).

7 See Zuboff, S. The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (2016).

8 Google CEO Eric Schmidt Dismisses the Importance of Privacy. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dec. 10, 2009.

10 Broad partnership with DuPont on agricultural application of CRISPR. See DuPont vs. the World: Chemical Giant Covered Up Health Risks of Teflon Contamination Across Globe, DemocracyNow, Jan. 28, 2018.

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