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David Noble Critiques "Commercialization of Universities"

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted February 17, 1999

Professor David Noble of York University in Toronto offered a timely and controversial critique of campus/corporate relations to a packed audience in Wheeler Hall's Maude Fife Room Feb. 8. His talk, "Commercialization of the Universities," was sponsored by the chair of the Academic Senate and the ASUC Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Noble opened by asking the audience to imagine Jewish prayer books imprinted with Intel InsideŇ logos or Christ hanging above the altar in Calvin Klein underwear. Such misuse of sacred space, he said, is not dissimilar to what is happening to higher education.

At his own campus in Toronto, Noble said, Pepsi has an exclusive franchise on all vending machines, and ads are displayed in permanent fixtures installed at sinks, stalls and even urinals. More recently, private companies have begun to pay the university for the right to place their logos on course materials.

The "unique space" of higher education, he said, "is being sold bit by bit to advertisers and commercial interests."

Less visible but more worrisome, Noble believes, is the increasing overlap between corporate and campus management and efforts to shift the costs of research to the public and the benefits to the private sector.

Noble said that ownership of university-based research findings has been the focus of an "epic battle" in the post-war period. Patent rights, he said, were negotiated on a case-by-case basis for four decades beginning in the '40s. That changed under the Carter administration, he said, when new legislation gave research institutions the patents to federally funded research.

Universities "at a stroke" were converted from educational institutions into patent-holding companies with a valuable bargaining chip, according to Noble. Private interests have approached them eagerly, payments in hand, hoping to influence the direction of research, Noble said, and to gain proprietary rights to the results.

For mere "lunch money," said Noble, private companies seek to cash in on "decades, sometimes centuries," of public investment into salaries, student subsidies, libraries and labs.

Noble strongly criticized the recent agreement between the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. CNR Dean Gordon Rausser was not present, but when contacted later told the Berkeleyan: "I can only infer that Dr. Noble either has not read the formal research agreement with the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute or, if he has, does not understand its implications for conduct and behavior. It is an agreement inherently consistent with the culture and values of UC Berkeley.

"Moreover," said Rausser, "our research alliance shifts the cost of research not to the public,as he suggests, but to the private sector, with the vast majority of the benefits accruing to UC Berkeley."

Questions and comments from members of the audience included the following: In what way is it more insidious for univerities to accept corporate funding than federal or state funding? Will deals like the CNR/Novartis agreement raise universities' liability to lawsuits, especially when the research involved covers uncharted and controversial frontiers of knowledge? How would the public participate in helping to set the agenda for research, as suggested by Noble?

The author of five books, including "American by Design," Noble currently is visiting Harvey Mudd College and is cofounder of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest.


February 17 - 23, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 23)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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