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April 4, 2002


The resolution of the Environmental Law Clinic problem was exquisitely timed. It preceded by a scant few days the March 18 University Senate plenary session titled, "The Corporatization of the University." There is a good bit of credit to be shared among the School of Law, the University administration and parts of the University Senate for the result that permits the clinic to operate within the framework of the School of Law. One might have expected that successful outcome to have blunted some of the criticism that the plenary session speaker, David F. Noble of York University, Ontario, Canada, directed at the Pitt administration. Even if it did somewhat, he found much to criticize, with several specific references to the chancellor's involvement with a variety of business-related entities.

The March 21 University Times contained extensive coverage of Professor Noble's remarks and subsequent comments. One might sum up his talk in a single sentence: Universities are dominated through their links to corporate America and they will do just about anything in their pursuit of money to keep the enterprise going, regardless of the interests of students, faculty and the broader community.

I would like to share several thoughts about his talk. First, many of the changes at universities that he described, and that he fears are destroying them, are evident here at Pitt. The harmful effects of corporatization, to the extent they exist, differ considerably among the various academic units. At Pitt the question is not about its ties and the faculty's ties with business but whether, and to what extent, academic interests and values are being sacrificed as a result. Much has been written about the influence of the drug manufacturers on research and other activities of medical school faculty members, and some of the concerns expressed about these links may be relevant on this campus. I doubt there is any industry that combines financial and political power more effectively than the pharmaceutical industry. Witness the failure of Congress to enact a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Second, Professor Noble did not offer any suggestions for resisting, or controlling, the excesses brought about by what he terms corporatization. I have a poster in my office stating, "Clients want answers, not information." In the practice of law I quickly learned that people want answers, not just a recital of problems. Professor Noble would have been more effective if he had put forth some ideas for how a university administration and faculty that want to avoid domination by industry might respond to the pressures they face. I would not expect a solution, but some thoughts on the subject would have been welcome.

Third, Professor Noble spoke disparagingly of university leaders generally, likening them to corporate CEOs, but having greater power than their counterparts in the corporate world. He went on to contrast current university leaders unfavorably with the university leaders of days gone by, at least one of whom he quoted from as a strong supporter of the traditional values of the university. My reaction is that he is romanticizing the past. I remember well the days when many universities, and most schools of medicine, had rigid admission quotas for Jews, and certain others, on racial, religious and ethnic grounds. Some of those university presidents of the past — during the 19th century and up until after World War II — who spoke glowingly of the values and ideals of the university, countenanced, if not encouraged, such discrimination. Dozens, if not hundreds, of public institutions of higher learning, and many private institutions, did not admit African-American students until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

As to faculty appointments, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many faculties consisted largely of individuals with independent means, drawn from the social and economic elite. These were not the children of recent immigrants. If it was difficult to get admitted, imagine the difficulty faced by a member of a disfavored group to secure a faculty appointment.

I don't buy the idea that there was a golden age of university life that is now disappearing. I doubt that the contemplative life of the mind flourished on many, if any campuses, in days past. One may wonder whether the WASP-elite domination of academic institutions in the past was any less pernicious in its impact upon the behavior and performance of students and faculty than the corporate domination that troubles Professor Noble.

Senate plenary sessions are meant to stimulate thought and discussion of issues within the University community. Subjects and speakers are selected by, or with the approval of, the Senate leadership. Those who participated in the decision-making with respect to the most recent plenary session made good choices. Professor Noble was provocative and he clearly had the attention of the audience. Note that the AAUP was founded in 1916, with the purpose of assisting faculty to gain the opportunity to participate meaningfully in university governance. Obviously, things were not close to perfect in institutions of higher education in that era.

I am certain that there are strategies that can be employed by universities acting in some instances individually, and in others collectively, to combat some of the evils he described, recognizing that the way universities operate reflects the values of the larger society of which they are a part.

q In his opening remarks to the audience at the plenary session, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg briefly summarized the founding, development and growth of the University. At one point he spoke positively of the contributions of the University Senate, particularly its committees. At a recent Faculty Assembly meeting, Herb Chesler, who chairs the Senate elections committee, described the difficulty the committee encountered in obtaining candidates for Faculty Assembly. He requested that the University administration make an effort to impress on faculty and academic administrators the value of the Senate and its organs to the University, as a way to encourage faculty participation. The chancellor's remarks, albeit to an audience consisting of very few deans and only a tiny fraction of the faculty, clearly was strongly supportive of such participation.

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