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Want to get former American Association of University Professors (AAUP) president Jane Buck, PhD, riled up? Refer to students as "customers," university presidents as "CEOs" and bursars as "CFOs."

"The concept of students as customers cannot possibly have a positive influence," says Buck, a retired Delaware State University psychology professor. "Pandering to students rather than expecting them to do work in order to get a decent grade is not a very good idea, to put it mildly."

These days Buck is having a harder time fighting the use of corporate terms in academia. The rise of consumerism, a growing push for accountability and declining public support for education are contributing to what many call the "corporatization" of higher education. Nonprofit colleges and universities are adopting corporate models, cutting costs and seeking profit-making opportunities.

And the for-profit education sector is booming. The University of Phoenix, for instance, began as a humble night school in 1976. Today its 300,000-plus students make it the country's largest private university and biggest recipient of student financial aid.

For students, faculty and the public in general, these changes bring both concerns and potential benefits. While proponents applaud the enhanced efficiency and opportunities to benefit those beyond the ivory tower's walls, others worry that institutions of higher learning risk losing their very soul: students committed to learning, professors committed to educating and researchers committed to following their intellectual passions rather than corporate agendas.

The rise of corporatization

Commercial influences in higher education are nothing new, note former Harvard University President Derek Bok and many others.

"What is new about today's commercial practices is not their existence but their unprecedented size and scope," Bok writes in "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education" (Princeton, 2004).

Once limited primarily to athletics, he says, the profit motive has now spread throughout the entire university. According to Bok, today's educational institutions are busily striving to profit from teaching, research and all the other activities on campus—offering corporations the right to endow professorships, sponsor courses, bring the university's scientific discoveries to market, even advertise in campus bathrooms.

Bok cites the growing commercialism of society as a whole as one factor in the commercialism of academia. But our increasingly consumeristic society isn't the only force at work, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education. Another societal trend is a push for accountability.

"There's a perception by the public that there has been waste in higher education and that there needs to be more accountability for the dollars spent," she says.

And as public funding dries up, says Belar, colleges and universities are forced to become more efficient and seek other sources of money.

At one end of this quest for alternative income sources are the for-profit institutions. For-profit universities with doctoral psychology programs include Argosy University, Capella University and Walden University.

Critics claim that the drive to make profits for stockholders encourages such institutions to churn out as many graduates as possible. But for Craig D. Swenson, PhD, president of Argosy's 19 campuses and online program, the growth of the for-profit sector in psychology is simply a response to the market.

"There's a tremendous need for practitioners—more than institutions are able to supply right now," says Swenson, noting that the need will only grow as veterans return from war.

Unlike some for-profit doctoral programs in psychology, most of Argosy's PsyD programs are both APA- and regionally accredited. Argosy is also creating community counseling centers at its Minneapolis and Seattle campuses, for example, to help meet the need for mental health services.

The centers—along with internship consortia the school joins in creating—will provide needed internship and practica positions for Argosy's students and others, says Swenson. He says he "bristles a bit" when nonprofit schools act as if the supply of internships belongs to them, an attitude he describes as "a little bit paternalistic."

For-profits are also meeting a demand from students, emphasizes Swenson. Adult students are capable of "voting with their feet," he says. At Argosy, for instance, a clearly laid out program appeals to students whose average age is 37. He also notes that being student-centered doesn't mean pandering. "Crafting flexible scheduling options, providing timely and accurate information and creating positive learning environments hardly represents pandering," he says. "Just because we're responsive doesn't mean you get an 'A' for the course."

At other for-profits, an emphasis on online education helps attract working students and those with families or other responsibilities. "The typical Capella University student, for example, is a 40-year-old working mother," says Deborah Bushway, PhD, interim dean of Capella's Harold Abel School of Psychology.

"We allow access to doctoral education for people who may have ruled it out based on life circumstances," she explains. "People in rural areas, people who may be in the military and need to move around, people who for various reasons can't be tied to a brick-and-mortar place can complete their degrees with us."

While some students rule out Capella and other for-profits that lack APA accreditation, Bushway adds that Capella's doctoral psychology students don't mind the lack of accreditation. They're going to practice in states that don't require graduation from an APA-accredited program for licensure, she explains. Or they may plan to teach.

According to Swenson, the market is forcing all institutions to be more flexible. Says Swenson, "It originally was the for-profit sector that said, 'What are your needs? When do you need it? Where do you need it? And how can we best deliver services to you?'"

Concerns about corporatization …

But are colleges and universities—whether for-profit or nonprofit—going overboard in their effort to accommodate students? The transformation of students into "consumers" worries Bernard C. Beins, PhD, who chairs the psychology department at New York's Ithaca College.

Giving students what they want could sometimes come at the expense of what they actually need, warns Beins, who worries that faculty may engage in some subtle pandering to students.

Beins points to the growing use of student evaluations in personnel decisions as part of the problem. Because advancement depends on good evaluations, say Beins and others, teaching can become a popularity contest. Plus, grade inflation can become a real problem as professors try to boost their scores by giving out easy 'A's.

Tracy E. Zinn, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., doesn't believe the student-as-customer situation is quite as dire as some believe. In an as-yet-unpublished study of 2,000 students at James Madison and George Mason University, she found that students didn't see themselves as customers in the "customer's always right" retail sense. Instead, both students and faculty saw students as more like patrons of a health club, who have to put effort in to make the most of the resources available to them.

"I tell my students to consider me their academic personal trainer," says Zinn. "You wouldn't want a personal trainer who lets you sit on your butt and eat doughnuts, because you're not going to really reap the benefits that way. My job is to kick their academic butts."

However, some students do view education itself as a commodity and see their grades as more important than what they learned. That attitude, she adds, contributes to the commercialization of higher education.

The cost-saving measures that corporatization often brings can also affect the education students receive. Consider the ever-growing use of adjunct faculty, says AAUP's Jane Buck. According to government figures, contingent faculty—part-time or full-time non-tenure track positions—now account for 68 percent of faculty appointments. Because they lack tenure and its protections, says Buck, these faculty may shy away from controversial positions or research programs and tend not to be involved in shared governance. They may also not be available to students.

"Many if not most of them are extremely dedicated, but they have to work three and four jobs to cobble together a living," says Buck.

Research is another area of concern, Buck says. She points as an example to the case of Nancy Olivieri, MD, a researcher who uncovered life-threatening side effects in the drug she was testing and faced pressure from the corporate funder to suppress the findings. Her university, which Olivieri claimed was reluctant to jeopardize a large donation the corporation had promised, then fired her. After an international outcry and lawsuit, Olivieri was exonerated.

The case points to the importance of no-strings-attached corporate support, says Buck.

If corporations are unduly influencing research, she says, "we're in serious trouble in terms of the development of knowledge, which is the enterprise we're supposed to be engaged in."

… and potential benefits

Martin Heesacker, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, believes that such risks can be minimized. Universities can establish—and most already have—ethical guidelines to keep researchers from being pressured by funders, he says. And departments can combine student evaluations with measures of student learning to evaluate professors.

"People rail against using student evaluations, saying they're not a good measure of how much students learn," says Heesacker. "They're absolutely right. But evaluations are a good measure of the degree to which our student stakeholders feel satisfied with the products they're receiving."

What's more, Heesacker appreciates the new attention to efficiency that corporatization has brought. Universities, he says, are scrutinizing operating expenses more carefully, trying to recover some costs from users of services like maintenance or information technology and eliminating courses, majors or even entire degrees that hold little appeal to students.

"When the budget got tight, we stopped offering classes that people could pretty well get along without," says Heesacker. Instead, the department focused on core classes needed by psychology majors and other majors who depend on the department.

Departments also started collaborating, he says. In the past, for instance, the psychology, clinical and health psychology departments had completely separate courses. When the going got tough financially, they cut costs by sharing classes.

M. Ellen Mitchell, PhD, professor and dean of the Institute of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, also sees the benefit of academia borrowing some—but not all—corporate approaches.

Corporate members of university boards, for example, sometimes believe that year-end bonuses will motivate faculty to hit benchmarks in terms of how many students they enroll or how much grant money they bring in. "They assume that what motivates people in the industrial world is similar to what motivates people in the academic world," she says, noting that faculty are far more interested in achieving educational goals than financial ones.

That said, Mitchell does appreciate the use of a corporate-style approach to achieving goals. Take diversity efforts, for example. A corporation would come up with policies and practices and then follow them systematically, she says. In contrast, she says, "a lot of universities suffer because they muster energy and make an effort, and then it doesn't continue across time."

At a broader level, Heesacker and others applaud the way corporatization encourages universities and corporations to work together. No longer isolated from industry, the University of Florida is now licensing to corporations the intellectual property created on campus more than ever before.

"Many faculty members felt like the ivory tower was insulation against corporate life and view the behaviors of corporations with some degree of suspicion," Heesacker admits.

But that romantic view is no longer realistic, he says. With the decline in funding for higher ed, he says, schools can either become more efficient, do less or raise money elsewhere.

"When I hear faculty saying, 'Isn't it awful that the university is becoming corporatized,' I'm thinking, 'Awful compared to what? Awful compared to going out of business?'"

For psychologist Nancy Cantor, PhD, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, corporatization isn't about money. It's about fulfilling what she sees as the university's mission: using intellectual capital for the public good.

To achieve that goal, she encourages professors and students to collaborate with all sectors of society—the nonprofit sector, the government and corporations—to address environmental sustainability, urban education and other pressing issues. She calls the initiative "scholarship in action."

Syracuse is partnering with JPMorgan Chase, for example, to create a technology program and center that will provide research opportunities for students and staff and create hundreds of technology jobs.

"That's a very big piece of the economic revitalization of upstate New York," she says.

Of course, Cantor recognizes the potential pitfalls of such partnerships. Schools should explore possible collaborations very deliberately, and engage with corporations and other partners only in areas where there's sustained faculty interest and academic strength.

But, she says, "even if a corporation's bottom line always has to involve profit, it can also involve doing well and doing good at the same time."

To Thomas M. DiLorenzo, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at the University of Delaware, the changes that are happening in higher education underline the need to get involved.

"A lot of academicians have a knee-jerk bad reaction to corporatization—'We're not a corporation, not a business, not this, not that,'" he says. "Although that's true, we are dealing with a changing world."

Noting that academia has changed dramatically over the last two decades, he predicts that the next decades will bring even more radical changes. "I hope we can all get involved, so we can help define what higher education might look like in 20 years," he says.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.