Should academic capitalism shape teaching and research?

Executive Summary

Policymakers increasingly see universities as engines of economic growth and as “incubators of innovation.” They argue that academic capitalism—an umbrella term for a variety of market-driven university ventures—is an innovative way to fund teaching, research and campus expansion in an era of tight budgets and rising tuition. They also say it benefits businesses, especially start-ups, by giving them access to campus research and facilities. Schools, the community and the economy all benefit. But critics say the close relationship between universities and the business world raises numerous ethical questions and warn that corporate funding can harm the ability of faculty to teach and research freely, two activities essential to good science and a healthy democratic society. Both sides agree that academic capitalism is here to stay and that financial realities will make it even more important to universities in the decades to come.

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Berman, Elizabeth Popp, “Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine,” Princeton University Press, 2012. A sociology professor investigates how the United States reframed the role of universities as drivers of economic growth.

Breznitz, Shiri M., “The Fountain of Knowledge: The Role of Universities in Economic Development,” Stanford University Press, 2014. An economic geographer examines the interconnections between universities, technology transfer, entrepreneurialism and local economic growth.

Casper, Gerhard, “The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University,” Yale University Press, 2014. The author, a former Stanford University president, describes the many challenges facing the modern university from a pro-commercialization perspective.

Greenaway, David, and Chris D. Rudd, “The Business Growth Benefits of Higher Education,” Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Writing mainly about the United Kingdom, two University of Nottingham professors make a strong case for effective business and university partnerships and the benefits that collaboration can bring to the economy.

Krimsky, Sheldon, “Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?” Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. A professor of urban and environmental policy criticizes what he regards as the overcommercialization of universities and argues ties to business sponsors can compromise research.

McMahon, Walter W., “Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Emeritus professor of economics at the University of Illinois analyzes the benefits of postsecondary education, including its effects on earnings and on society.

Picciano, Anthony G., and Joel H. Spring, “The Great American Education-Industrial Complex: Ideology, Technology, and Profit,” Routledge, 2013. Two education policy experts from the City University of New York offer a wide-ranging critique of the many different ways that the activities and fortunes of universities, businesses, governments and other interest groups are entwined.


Belkin, Douglas, “Test Finds College Graduates Lack Skills for White-Collar Jobs,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2015, Forty percent of U.S. college graduates do not possess the skills to do white-collar work, a test given to 32,000 students finds.

Krimsky, Sheldon, “Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research? An Inquiry into the ‘Funding Effect,’” Hypothesis Science, Technology & Human Values, July 2013, pp. 566–587, Krimsky, a critic of academic capitalism, synthesizes many of his arguments and worries about conflicts of interest compromising research.

Mathies, Charles, and Sheila Slaughter, “University trustees as channels between academe and industry: Toward an understanding of the executive science network,” Research Policy, July-August 2013, pp. 1286–1300, Education policy researchers analyze the “revolving door” between the corporate boardroom and the university boardroom and the role that trustees play in research strategy, innovation and economic development.

Morris, Catherine, “For-Profits Under Fire,” Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, Nov. 17, 2014, For-profit colleges face scrutiny over the quality of education they offer and their treatment of students.

Reports and Studies

“The Economics of Higher Education: A Report Prepared by the Department of the Treasury with the Department of Education,” Department of the Treasury, December 2012, A wide-ranging U.S. government report looks into the economics of higher education.

“Higher Education to 2030,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2008, A global report offers guesses on how universities will be organized in 2030 and who will be attending them.

“OECD Education at a Glance Report,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, July 2013, These annual reports provide global data on education from kindergarten to the doctoral level.

“Projections of Education Statistics to 2022,” National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education, 2014, Drawing on its data, the federal National Center for Education Statistics predicts education trends over the next few years.

Altbach, Philip G., Liz Reisberg and Laura E. Rumbley, “Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution,” UNESCO, 2009, A report prepared for UNESCO synthesizes global data on universities and argues the sector has undergone a revolution in the past 50 years.

Washburn, Jennifer, “Big Oil Goes to College: An Analysis of 10 Research Collaboration Contracts Between Leading Energy Companies and Major U.S. Universities,” 2010, A liberal think tank highlights uncomfortable connections between energy companies and universities.

The Next Step

Distance Learning

Moules, Jonathan, “Illinois College of Business and Coursera launch MBA Mooc,” Financial Times, May 6, 2015, The University of Illinois College of Business is working with distance education provider Coursera to create an MBA program composed entirely of massive open online courses (MOOCs); the program would cost about $20,000 to complete.

Straumsheim, Carl, “A Flexible Future,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 2, 2014, Top research universities that previously partnered with companies to develop the first MOOCs are now introducing the same distance learning modules in their own curricula.

Thurm, Eric, “TV Execs Want You to Take College Classes About Their Shows,” Wired, May 13, 2015, Television networks such as AMC and FX are partnering with distance education companies to offer online college courses about popular shows.

Ethical Issues

Browning, Dan, “From diabetes to chewing gum, private funds can drive U research,” The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 26, 2015, University of Minnesota professors question whether increased private research funding from donors such as gum manufacturer Wrigley Co. and Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. has influenced the university's research agenda.

Jackson, Simon, Ann Thomson and Stefan Nygard, “In the race to turn higher education into a market, we're ignoring lessons from history,” The Conversation, March 10, 2015, Three professors argue that universities have cast aside historical lessons about the importance of preserving intellectual freedom in their growing pursuit of corporate funding.

Vasquez, Michael, “Politicians turn Florida into for-profit college paradise,” Miami Herald, April 23, 2015, A Miami Herald investigation finds that Florida legislators have passed at least 15 laws enabling for-profit colleges to recruit more students using questionable tactics and to expand their presence in the state's higher education system.


Anderson, Nick, “USC president seeks global reach,” The Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2015, The president of the University of Southern California says the university plans to continue to expand international outreach without implementing satellite campuses or offering MOOCs.

Jaschik, Scott, “‘Chaos and Confusion,’” Inside Higher Ed, June 1, 2015, Varying terminology about degree programs and data collection policies from country to country create administrative confusion for international distance learning partnerships, according to a report by British and German academics.

Palin, Adam, “Online learning: studying for an MBA in another continent,” Financial Times, March 8, 2015, Students in global online graduate programs say communicating with peers on video and instant messaging platforms and working around conflicting time zones are keys to creating a successful online classroom.

Workforce Training

Chandler, Clay, “Miss. State finalizing R&D deal with Boeing,” The Clarion-Ledger, May 28, 2015, The Federal Aviation Administration and aircraft and weapons manufacturer Boeing will open research facilities at Mississippi State University and help to develop an aviation industry workforce in southern Mississippi.

Heikens, Norm, “New workforce thrust aims to boost Indy tech expertise,” Indianapolis Business Journal, April 30, 2015, A coalition of Indianapolis business and civic leaders will invest $2 million to train more technologically literate college students to work for Indiana-based tech companies.

Mendoza, Martha, “Google sends its engineers back to university,” The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2015, Internet services giant Google sent software engineers to teach introductory courses at historically black colleges and universities and to train and recruit African-American students to work for the company.


American Association of University Professors
1133 19th St., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036
Professional body that works to protect the rights of faculty and other higher education professionals.

Association of University Technology Managers
111 Deer Lake Road, Suite 100, Deerfield, IL 60015
Professional body that supports and advances academic technology transfer around the world.

Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International
777 S. Harbour Island Blvd., Suite 750, Tampa, FL 33602
Global organization of educational institutions and businesses that conducts research and hosts conferences and events.

Center for International Higher Education
207 Campion Hall, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
Academic group that conducts, publishes and sponsors research into the key issues facing today's universities.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
1776 I St., N.W., #450, Washington, DC 20006
U.S. contact office for Paris-based group of 34 developed nations that promotes policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

Program for Research on Private Higher Education
University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY 12222
Academic unit that seeks to build knowledge about and support research on private higher education globally.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics
C.P. 6128 Succursale Centre-ville, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3J7
Statistical branch of the multinational organization that supports learning and provides data on national and international education.

DOI: 10.1177/2374556815594792