The Corporate Professor   /   Spring 2012   /    The Corporate Professor

The University, the Market, and Professors

A Bibliographic Essay

Ethan Schrum

Graduation; flickr.

A survey of works on the rise of academic capitalism.

A torrent of literature on the ills of higher education has inundated the American landscape in recent years. One of the most frequent concerns is that people no longer see the university and its knowledge and degrees as a public good, but rather as a private good for getting ahead in one’s career. The university is a constantly changing institution, and most observers agree that two major structural shifts have marked its path in recent decades: one around World War II and another beginning in the 1970s.

The History of Universities since World War II

There is no doubt that the American university became a fundamentally different institution after World War II. Several sources of change are well-documented: the Cold War; the GI Bill and later the baby boom, which dramatically increased enrollments; and the emergence of permanent U.S. government funding for research, which created a federal research economy that shaped universities. Several academics of that era reflected on these trends in enduring ways. The most prominent of these works is Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, delivered as lectures at Harvard in 1963. Kerr, then president of the multicampus University of California, the nation’s largest university system, famously argued that the university had become the “multiversity”—an institution lacking any unified purpose, which various constituencies tried to use for their own ends. Robert Nisbet criticized this trend in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, arguing that the new research funding had distorted the soul of the university. 

Historical works about the postwar university began to appear in the early 1990s. Two massive, wide-ranging books focused on the expansion of research, patronage, and enrollment and their consequences. Roger Geiger in Research and Relevant Knowledge argued that a new “autonomous research mission” characterized the postwar university, while Richard Freeland in Academia’s Golden Age spotlighted declining institutional diversity among American universities.

The next wave of scholarship consisted of shorter, more focused books with an extreme emphasis on the Cold War, which had recently ended when they appeared. This category includes the works by Stuart W. Leslie and Rebecca S. Lowen, as well as the collections edited by Noam Chomsky and Christopher Simpson, which exhibit a more overtly political perspective. Another edited collection from the late 1990s, American Academic Culture in Transformation, made academic disciplines its primary lens and claimed that the postwar university saw a return to disciplinary purity and a shrinking from civic responsibility. Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge, the most important work on postwar universities to appear in the first decade of the 2000s, retained the Cold War framework but innovated with an emphasis on universities’ new obsession with economic development, a signature characteristic of the postwar university.11xOther more recent reflections have been more cautious about attributing too much influence to the Cold War. See David C. Engerman, “Rethinking Cold War Universities: Some Recent Histories,” Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003): 80–95, and “Bernath Lecture: American Knowledge and Global Power,” Diplomatic History 31.4 (September 2007): 599–622. O’Mara also broke ground by connecting the university to urban history.22xThis trend is continuing, with an expansion to the role of architecture in the character of postwar universities, in books currently being written by Michael Carriere and LaDale Winling. The most recent addition to this literature is Christopher Loss’s Between Citizens and the State, which focuses on the relationship between the federal government and universities and argues that the university became a key institution for mediating relations between citizens and their government.

  • Bender, Thomas, and Carl E. Schorske, eds. American Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years, Four Disciplines. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Chomsky, Noam, et al. The Cold War & the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years. New York, NY: New, 1997.
  • Freeland, Richard M. Academia’s Golden Age: Universities in Massachusetts, 1945–1970. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Geiger, Roger L. Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities Since World War II. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Leslie, Stuart W. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Loss, Christopher P. Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Lowen, Rebecca S. Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Nisbet, Robert. The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945–1970. New York, NY: Basic, 1971.
  • O’Mara, Margaret Pugh. Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Simpson, Christopher, ed., Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War. New York, NY: New, 1998.


Most observers agree that a shift in the underlying logic of how universities operate took root in the 1970s, gained momentum in the 1980s, and became entrenched in the 1990s.33xThe notion that markets within higher education shape universities to some extent has been in circulation at least since the publication of Theodore Caplow and Reece McGee, The Academic Marketplace (New York: Basic, 1958). Sheila Slaughter and her colleagues have dubbed these new ways of operating “academic capitalism” in two books that attempt to elaborate and analyze the phenomenon using social science theory. Academic Capitalism makes a transnational analysis of university science and technology transfer policy, while Academic Capitalism and the New Economy broadens the thematic scope to examine how other areas of the university engage markets while narrowing the geographic scope to the US. Slaughter and Leslie argue that whereas traditional university norms had insulated faculty from markets, academic capitalism involved “institutional and professorial market or marketlike efforts to secure external moneys” (8). To be sure, academic capitalism began before the 1970s; Kerr noted in 1963 how professors had increasingly become entrepreneurs since World War II.

Explanations for the rise of academic capitalism vary from universities’ need to make up for lost government funding to the greater opportunities for faculty entrepreneurship provided by globalization and the “new economy” centered on knowledge. But almost everyone agrees on the critical stimulus provided by the Bayh-Dole Act, a 1980 U.S. law that gave universities ownership of patents arising from federally funded research grants, which allowed universities to reap revenues from many more patent licenses. By 1990, nearly all research universities had created offices to help patent discoveries made on campus. Roger Geiger provides a look at markets internal to higher education, including terrific material about how a “selectivity sweepstakes” changed the market for students in college admissions and helped to shape a “high-tuition/high-aid strategy” that has dominated since around 1980. While Slaughter’s and Geiger’s works are oriented significantly toward fellow scholars of higher education, former Harvard president Derek Bok covers universities and markets thematically for a more general audience, while David Kirp does so with case studies of how markets have shaped specific programs at selected universities. Of these writers, Geiger is the most sanguine about academic entrepreneurship, while Bok worries about the effects on the character of the university. Kirp stakes a middle ground, while Slaughter and colleagues take a more dispassionate approach.

  • Bok, Derek. Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Geiger, Roger. Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
  • Kirp, David L. Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • Slaughter, Sheila, and Larry L. Leslie. Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 

Corporatization and the Fate of the Professor

In recent years, the most prominent books on the underlying logic of university activities have shifted focus from markets to corporatization. The precise relationship between these two trends is a matter of debate. Eric Gould believes that “higher education in the United States has developed an increasingly complex capitalist market in its own right” (vii). He argues that resistance to the corporate university is futile and focuses on how to develop a robust democratic liberal education that can thrive within the corporate university. John Somerville provides a meta-evaluation of corporatization. He argues that “Secularization Creates the Corporate University” (as he titles his second chapter) and believes that a greater openness to religious ideas in secular universities could mitigate the situation.

One of the main themes of this set of books is what the authors perceive as encroachments on the power and autonomy of individual professors by corporate structures and logic in the university.44x Readers wanting to gain broader perspective on the role of professors might consult the classic social science literature on faculty work, such as Martin Finkelstein, The American Academic Profession: A Synthesis of Social Scientific Inquiry Since World War II (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1984); and Gary Rhoades, Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998). Benjamin Ginsberg gives the most ample voice to the common complaint of this genre, that universities are now overflowing with corporate-minded administrators who lack faculty experience and impose alien values and expectations on professors. Frank Donoghue believes this situation is so bad in the humanities that his generation of humanists will be the last to be professors as we have known them. He argues that increased evaluation and management of professors in the corporate university drives faculty research “toward narrow conformity and standardization” (xvii), thus robbing professors of the freedom to pursue unusual or potentially controversial research topics that they find compelling. Jennifer Washburn describes a similar plight for science professors in a book featuring case studies of specific partnerships between corporations and universities. Washburn provides striking examples, such as a 1998 agreement between the UC-Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, in which Novartis provided approximately one-third of the department’s research funding in exchange for first right to negotiate licenses on some of the department’s discoveries and two of five seats on a research committee that determined how its money would be used.

Gaye Tuchman analyzes the corporate university via an ethnography of a mid-level state university she dubs “Wannabe U” to obscure its identity. She describes observing “corporatizing” processes of centralization, bureaucratization, and commodification (such as measuring programs by revenue streams). In this environment, professors have less familiarity with central administrators, less say in university affairs, larger classes, and more pressure to publish and get grants. Tuchman provides substantial discussion of the notion that we live in an “audit society” that has shaped the university.55xMichael Power has given this notion its fullest treatment in The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997). She argues that the

new sorts of administrators…try to govern [professors] rather than to govern with them. As a result, the process of auditing has become ever more important, as administrators create situations in which faculty members must account for themselves. Indeed, these administrative actions appear to be encouraging an accountability regime. (21)

  • Donoghue, Frank. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008.
  • Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Gould, Eric. The University in a Corporate Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Somerville, C. John. Religious Ideas for Secular Universities. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Tuchman, Gaye. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Washburn, Jennifer. University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. New York, NY: Basic, 2005.

State Universities

There is no definitive analysis of the state university’s condition and future. Two recent works tackle this issue—Nancy Folbre’s breezy Saving State U and Christopher Newfield’s more complex and tendentious Unmaking the Public University—but each falls short in areas. Both are written explicitly from the political left, which leads to problems with focus. Considerable chunks of each book, including the whole first half of Newfield’s, are not directly about state universities. An earlier work by James J. Duderstadt and Farris W. Womack, The Future of the Public University in America, provides a more focused and less politicized take on state universities, but is explicitly “written not as an analysis of the various forces driving change in today’s public university but, rather, as a consideration of various strategies for shaping the public university of the future” (3). The authors do, however, assert that one of the major transitions shaping the state university is the waning authority of public policy and the waxing influence of market forces. As Folbre does later, they frame transformations in the state university as related to changes in its “social contract” with American society, especially the decline of the notion of the state university as a public good.

Folbre embeds the history of state universities in the history of the US welfare state. She focuses on declining funding for universities by state governments and cites the antitax movement since the late 1970s as a prime culprit. Folbre calls for social democracy and for free higher education “for those who meet and maintain high academic standards” (159), which she leaves unspecified. She claims that this plan is realistic, since its costs would not exceed those of the Iraq War. Newfield’s book is worth considering due to the breadth of issues he considers, but his central argument—that conservative elites threatened by the rise of a college-educated economic majority have used the culture wars on higher education to reduce “the public importance and economic claims of the American university and its graduates” (6) and thus put that majority back in its place—is unpersuasive. Another weakness is Newfield’s making Kerr an example of a postwar university president who “lamented” the increasing influence of external actors on the direction of the university. While Kerr did sometimes speak publicly to that effect (although not in the passage Newfield cites), archival research shows that Kerr actively facilitated such external influence at Berkeley.66xEthan Schrum, “Clark Kerr’s Early Career, Social Science, and the American University,” Iconic Leaders in Higher Education, ed. Roger L. Geiger, Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 28 (2011): 215–16. It appears that Kerr strengthened his pronouncements about the dangers of external influence shortly before his death in 2003; see Jennifer Washburn, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, 1–2. Newfield’s portrayal is an example of a broader trend in higher education literature to lionize Kerr as a champion of state universities without critically examining how his policies and ideas contributed to trends that this literature deplores. Both authors correctly look back to the triumphant posture of state universities in the 1940s when they began to overtake private universities in students and resources. At the time, important leaders of American higher education believed that private universities would wither away as state schools surged.77xEthan Schrum, “Establishing a Democratic Religion: Metaphysics and Democracy in the Debates over the President’s Commission on Higher Education,” History of Education Quarterly 47.3 (August 2007): 277–301. Now some believe that the opposite could be happening, a reminder about the importance of historical perspective and investigating how actions and strategies changed what some thought to be inevitable.

  • Duderstadt, James J., and Farris W. Womack. The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Folbre, Nancy. Saving State U: Fixing Public Higher Education. New York, NY: New, 2010.
  • Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

The Humanities

With the exception of the volume edited by David A. Hollinger—a set of essays that mostly traces the trajectory of individual disciplines, particularly in their encounter with ethno-racial and gender diversity—every book in this section is a lament of some sort. Anthony Kronman believes that universities no longer effectively help students learn the meaning of life, even though we need the humanities to fill our spiritual emptiness in modernity. He traces the problem to the 1960s, when, he argues, secular humanism, which previously provided a framework of meaning in the humanities, crumbled as humanists abandoned the big questions in order to pursue more specialization. Kronman proposes that secular humanism must be renewed as the basis for making the humanities sustainable and relevant. Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, also emphasizes the humanities’ secular character in the provocative and often incisive The Humanities and the Dream of America. Harpham makes a case for “the humanities” as a distinctly American notion, which when adopted by universities in other countries “often marks an attempt to conform the local system of higher education to that of the United States” (9). He also asserts that the perennial “crisis in the humanities,” far from being a problem, is actually an essential “constitutive part” of the whole endeavor.

Stanley Fish writes about the university as a whole, but his argument has special relevance to the humanities. He chides professors for political advocacy in the classroom and attempting to “save the world,” activities he thinks weaken the university. He argues that professors should stick to introducing students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry and equipping students with the analytic skills to move confidently in those traditions and pursue independent research. Martha Nussbaum disagrees with Fish, arguing that the humanities should have a political end in that they teach the critical thinking and empathy necessary for democracy. The trend toward thinking of universities (and K–12 schools) primarily as tools for economic growth and career preparation, she worries, will lead to “producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements” (2). Victor E. Ferrall provides a sobering look at the state of independent liberal arts colleges, including extensive statistics about 225 institutions divided into four tiers according to the U.S. News and World Report rubric. His most striking finding is the dramatic jump in the percentage of vocational degrees awarded by liberal arts colleges between 1986–87 and 2007–08, from 10.6 percent to 28.7 percent. Ferrall argues that colleges have promoted more profitable vocational majors as a way of funding the liberal arts core, increasingly admitting less qualified students to make ends meet.

  • Ferrall, Jr., Victor E. Liberal Arts at the Brink. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  • Hollinger, David A., ed. The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
  • Kronman, Anthony. Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.