University Blues

The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis. By James Ridgeway. Random Houses, $5.95.

RIDGEWAY sees the central fact about modern American universities as being their conversion into centers of industrial activity. "The professors." he concludes, "are less interested in teaching students than in yanking the levers of their new combines so that these machines will grow bigger and go faster. The university has in large part been reduced to serving as a banker broker for the professors' outside interests. The charming elitism of the professors has long since given way to the greed of social and political scientists whose manipulative theories aim only at political power." The body of The Closed Corporation seeks to document this claim.

Ridgeway examines every phase of the university's incestuous involvement with industry and government. He discusses the inevitable interlocks between university corporations and large industrial corporations. As university trustees are generally businessmen, predictably enough, they run their institutions like businesses. "Princeton controls . . . the two main hotels, the movie theatre and stores on the main street of Princeton. . . . Its representatives are on both banks. The treasurer of Dartmouth college is chairman of the Hanover Trust Company where Dartmouth has an account. The University of Michigan helped finance the building of a Howard Johnson's . . . Both Harvard and MIT have their representatives in many of the banks in Cambridge. Both . . . buy and hold property. Thus M.I.T. purchased a United Shoe factory . . . then leased it back to the Polaroid Corporation. M.I.T. and Polaroid enjoy a cozy relationship. Killian, M.I.T. president, sits on the Polaroid Board and Edwin Land, the Polaroid president, advises M.I.T."

Universities do not confine their business activities to their nearby environments. Ridgeway describes how some have turned themselves in major beneficiaries of profits from drug discoveries made in their laboratories. Indiana University holds the patents on Crest toothpaste, Rutgers on the drug Streptomycin. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation at the University of Wisconsin provides the university with over $2 million annually, much of it derived from royalties on inventions made in the Foundation labs. (Warfarin, a leading rat poison, is the best known of these.)

In the context of university financial ventures, Ridgeway brings up Harvard's stockholdings in Middle South Utilities, the holding company which controls electric utilities in various Southern states. He quotes Pusey's comment when questioned about the racist management of the company's southern divisions: "If there are discriminatory practices, then the company should be prosecuted under federal law. . . . Our purpose is just to invest in places that are selfishly good for Harvard. We do not use our money for social purposes."

THE MOST interesting section of The Closed Corporation focuses not on the activities of university corporations, but on the entrepreneurial schemes of professors. Ridgeway describes J. Sterling Livingston, professor at the Harvard Business School, who has established six companies of his own since World War II. Ithiel de Sola Pool, professor of Political Science at M.I.T., works at the social problem solving firm Simulmatics for a minimum annual consulting fee of $5000. Under certain circumstances, he gets $100 a day. Last year Pool headed a secret program at Simulmatics for the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, trying to figure out way to get Viet Cong to defect. George Baker, dean of the Harvard Business School, is the chairman of the Transportation Association of America, which includes among its objectives: "Reduce government competition with, and threats of socialization to, one or more segments of the transportation industry."


Other professors wheel and deal in more transparent ways. In 1967 a professor from Albert Einstein wrote to the Senate protesting Richard Burack's claim that generic name drugs are as good as the brand name variety. It turned out that this professor was a consultant to three drug companies and had been asked to write the letter by the president of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association. Professors testify in Washington against labeling cigarette packages with health warnings without revealing that they are consultants for tobacco companies. Others argue against government regulation of the drug industry sitting on boards of companies like Merck.

At the conclusion of his book, Ridgeway sketches a few ways in which the university might be democratized and made to serve the public. He suggests that trustees be elected by students, faculty, and alumni, that meetings of university governing boards be made public, and that universities issue financial reports. He suggests that university officials should not be allowed to sit on other boards.

But he does not propose these ideas with any indication that he thinks they will be adopted. Critics have complained about this, saying The Closed Corporation provides no viable solutions for the "crisis" American universities are now undergoing. But this objection misses the point. It is no accident that Ridgeway offers the universities no way out of their present mess. His cynicism stems directly from his analysis of their situation. As he shows, us the university has become an industrial complex and nothing more. The real business of a university is business. Like any corporation -- or like the United States government -- it functions in spite of sporadic protest movements. If a university is stupid, like Columbia, it gets trapped into a confrontation with its students and comes off with a bad public relations image. If it behaves more strategically, as Harvard does, it avoids such situations. But these incidents are, in any case, relatively inconsequential. The university's position--determined by the strength of its ties with other powerful institutions--is far too secure to be threatened by powerless students or concerned faculty. The university guild has only to sit tight and it will remain untoppled.

NONE OF the professors have liked Ridgeway's book much. James Billington who teaches medieval history at Princeton and doubles as a consultant for the CIA, called it "childish" in a Life review. Ernest Van den Haag, retained in 1964 to testify against the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision, participated in the WNDT panel as a professor from the New School for Social Research, and scoffed at Ridgeway's pessimism.

The university entrepreneurs go about their business, unperturbed by students sitting in or taking over switchboards. Ridgeway's book offers no coherent picture of what might be done to improve the situation, because what is needed is a total redistribution of power in the universities. A few reform schemes cannot provide for this. What Ridgeway deplores about the universities is their implication in the political maneuverings of other institutions. This collusion between universities, business, and government--which places the same corporate elite in charge of everything--cannot be ended solely by internal change within the universities. Such change, which would proceed from the acquiescence of the university officials, would be only an effort at pacification, and no change at all.