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U.S. University, Inc.

Many worry that the new corporate attitude threatens the very fabric of the university. “The danger is that you unwittingly lose sight of the ultimate aim of education and that you confuse commercialization with the deeper purposes of higher learning,” warns Stanley Ikenberry, president of the American Council on Education.

Ikenberry says schools are therefore engaged in “a constant yin-yang struggle between trying to focus and prioritize on the one hand and on the other trying to maintain some idealized vision of the classical university.” Not so long ago, corporations gave unrestricted money to colleges to cultivate good will. Now, they mainly back projects that have direct commercial payoffs. Sponsors typically get first rights to the fruits of research they support, and scientists must often delay publishing their results to give corporations a leg up on commercialization.

All these concerns merit constant vigilance. But when Rhodes and other educational authorities insist the “de-Harvardization” and “corporatization” of the American campus is inevitable-and only just beginning-it’s best to take note. After all, no school can do it all. And to thrive in the current climate virtually requires a corporate-like attitude of watching the bottom line, bringing down institutional and departmental barriers to innovation-and wheeling and dealing.

Meanwhile, a host of university officials believe the potential rewards are vital to economic well-being. Frank Rhodes cites statistics that show that the alumni and faculty of MIT, long a leader among “corporate” campuses, have spawned some 4,000 companies that employ 1.1 million people and generate $230 billion in annual sales-a feat that as a stand-alone economy would rank it 23rd in the world, “between South Africa and Thailand.” That’s a strong argument for continuing on the current path. And, if revitalized firms such as Lucent or IBM are any model, anything that brings better focus and interdisciplinary teamwork to the campus will likely create a fresh spark of discovery, unleashing what Yale’s Long terms “a powerful impact on scholarship, teaching and larger society.”

Kenneth Wilson, the voice from the back of the room during McTague’s talk at Cornell, won his Nobel Prize in 1982, at the height of the ivory tower era. Now at Ohio State, even he is an advocate of the new course. “You don’t get things done by being an island unto yourself anymore,” he says. “Each university has to have its own character now. Each can figure out a way to pick its areas of strength, and then leverage those to partner with somebody else.”

By the way, he adds, that budget for university research? Still not enough.

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