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Derek Bok served as president of Harvard University from
July 1971 through June 1991. His most recent book is “The
Commercialization of Higher Education,” published in 2003 by
Princeton University Press. This interview took place in Bok’s
office on the Harvard campus, and was conducted by Kathy
Witkowsky, a frequent contributor to
National CrossTalk
KathyWitkowsky: In your book, you argue that
increasing commercialization threatens to erode the values
that are at the heart of higher education. But you also point
out that profit-seeking isn’t anything really new. What’s
different about today’s educational landscape that has you
so concerned?
Derek Bok:
Well, I think two things are different since
around 1980. One is that the amount of profit-making activity
has increased greatly, in part because there are very pressing
needs for funds and greater competition among universities
that increase the demand. But the most important reason is
that, as the society gets more complex, and there are greater
needs for expert knowledge, new scientific discoveries, and
mid-career education, which has boomed in the last 25 years,
frankly, the opportunities to make money from the things that
universities do have increased enormously. That’s one change.
The other change is that profit-making activity has moved
from the periphery of the university, in things like athletics or
extension schools or correspondence schools, into the heart of
what universities do: into scientific research, and now with the
Internet and distance education, which can be established on
a profit-making basis, into education as well.
KW: What do you think is at stake here?
: First of all, I’d like to make clear that this is not all
bad. The opportunity to make money is sometimes a very
useful incentive, not just in the private economy, but in higher
education as well. The fact that universities since 1980 have
been able to get patents on discoveries made with government
funds has meant that universities have become far more
active in trying to see opportunities, to translate the scientific
advances that they make into useful products and processes.
And that, after all, is why taxpayers have given us the money,
and is certainly, therefore, in the public interest.
Nevertheless, it’s very important how this process of
profit-seeking goes on, because it can easily get out of hand
and erode essential values of the university. The most vivid
illustration, of course, is the form of commercialization that
we’ve had the longest: athletics. You can see very clearly how
big-time athletics has eroded the integrity of the admissions
process, has affected the academic standards in the nature of
courses, and sometimes even grading standards applied to
athletes. What happens is those risks multiply when profit-
making activities are not simply peripheral to the university
but lie at the heart of what we do.
Summer 2003
Derek Bok
KW: Can you give
me some examples,
beyond athletics,
of what turned on
the warning lights
for you about this
: To begin with,
it was the succession
of get-rich schemes
that came to me (as
president of Harvard),
and my recognition
of how pervasive this
problemwas and how seductive a lot of these issues were.
For example, I mention in my book the proposal by a
pharmaceutical company to give [Harvard] a million dollars
a year, for the medical school to produce a series of programs
on cardiology. We would control the content, but there would
be commercial advertising. And the question is: Do you want
to do that?
Well, it’s very easy to make a case that that’s easy money—
take it. I mean, so there’s advertising. There’s advertising
everywhere, including in the football programs at your own
university. So what’s the problem?
Well, the more you think about it, the more you see that
turning education into a commercial product with advertising
does have subtle costs connected to it that probably are best
avoided. But at least to me, it wasn’t immediately obvious
that that was so. So I began to see: Gee, these are really tough
problems. It’s easy to make mistakes here.
KW: Do you distinguish between advertising on
campus, or perhaps an exclusive contract
with a company to sell its product on campus,
and advertising or some sort of sponsorship,
as you are speaking of, with these medical
programs? Is there a difference there?
: No, I think they’re all part of the same
Advertising is helpful in many ways to
companies, and I’m sure if they could advertise
in classrooms and things of that kind we could
get money for it. You have only to see what has
happened in high schools.
Many people aren’t aware of the degree to which the desire
to advertise has gotten into high schools—not only to get
exclusive concessions, which of course always have bonuses
for increasing the consumption of soft drinks and fast foods,
but getting into the curriculum. So that you begin to provide
math curriculum based on howmany chocolate chips there
This process of
profit-seeking can
easily get out of
hand and erode
essential values of
the university.
Dana Smith, Black Star, for CrossTalk