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Noble blasts industry/college links

By Mauricio Roman

In his talk last night in 10-250, David Noble asserted that the benefits of the public investment in universities are going to corporations which "skim the cream off the top" of accumulated public investment.

Drexel University professor Noble, formerly an assistant professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society, is suing MIT for an unfair tenure denial process.

Noble said he traced the development of US industries since the beginning of the century, and found that industries tend to transform American institutions to meet their needs. In universities, this is reflected both in the transformation of the curriculum so that it meets "industrial standards," and in the industrial control over scientific development and research.

Since the mid-seventies, the ties between universities and corporations have increased. This trend paralleled the shift to production of high technology, knowledge-based goods in industrialized countries after the shift of basic manufacturing to less developed countries. The universities then became a resource of "intellectual capital." Industries strived to "mine the intellectual resources of universities," which are largely the product of accumulated public investment, according to Noble. Hence, a network of "insider trading" of research emerged, he claimed.

Companies view research as costly and risky. By using the intellectual capital of the universities, companies "socialize their costs and risks." For instance, Digital Equipment Corporation is directly involved with more than 100 universities. While the firms' attempt to socialize costs by sharing the intellectual product of universities is an old phenomenon, its scale and intensity have increased dramatically since the 1970's, Noble said.

Noble also noted that in the 1970's, university presidents became more involved with industry than ever before. "The same group of people who run the universities run the corporations," Noble said. University presidents no longer sat on local chambers of commerce; they sat on the board of directors of multinational corporations. For example, Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie-Mellon University, sits on six corporate boards.

According to Noble, the growing link between universities and industry led to the modification of US patent laws in 1980 which makes it explicit that universities own patents resulting from Federal money. Noble maintains that Congress modified this law in the name of increasing American competitiveness. Noble claimed this new law does not mean that universities are making more money; it means that universities' public resources are more `neatly packaged' for the corporations, since universities can now grant exclusive licenses to corporations, therefore allowing the massive transfer of public resources to private money.

According to Noble, the American Association of Universities is the cartel controlling the sale of research. According to a recent survey, 60 percent of the AAU members have recently cut back on their curriculae in order to build up the most commercially profitable activities of the university. Noble said that money for these activities also comes from faculty cutbacks and tuition. In fact, tuition increases correlate precisely with the commercialization of universities. For example, the University of Minnesota, which has the largest enrollment in the country, cut back 20 percent of its enrollment -- 8000 students -- in order to build high technology activities and thereby increase its "competitive advantage," Noble said.

Noble concluded that the coalition between universities and industry has given education a secondary role. The conflict of interest is not between companies and universities, but between the university-industry coalition and the tax and tuition paying public. For students, the consequences of this conflict are tuition increases, smaller classes offerings, and even enrollment cutbacks.

However, there is a positive aspect, Noble said. Legislation is currently being formulated on the relation between universities and industry. There is a congressional committee investigation going on about industrial links to different universities, including MIT's Industrial Liason Program. Noble also cited an upsurge in student organizing that parallels that of 20 years ago and focuses on developing strategies of tuition strikes.