NEW YORK — Did you know that Stanford University has a Yahoo! Chair of Information Management Systems?

I didn’t, until I read Henry Giroux’s article in Harvard Educational Review (Winter 2002): “Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere.” It is a stinging attack on what Giroux, professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, calls “the corporatizing of higher education.”

“Neoliberalism has become,” Giroux asserts, “the most dangerous ideology of the current historical moment.” What is “neoliberalism”? It refers, according to Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, “to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.”

Or, as Jean and John Comaroff, two anthropologists at the University of Chicago, define it, neoliberalism is a force that “works to displace political sovereignty with the sovereignty of ‘the market,’ as if the latter had a mind and morality of its own.”

Applied to education, it holds that most problems afflicting it can be solved by bringing market competition to bear. As Lori Taylor, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has argued, competition, which is “a key to economic prosperity,” is “also a key to improving our educational system.” Lee Iacocca, former chairman of Chrysler, once called students “products.”

The bete noire for Giroux in this regard is James Carlin. In 1997, Carlin, then chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, urged that colleges and universities be run like corporations. The first thing to be done was to abolish tenure.

The idea of doing away with tenure was gaining popularity at the time largely, I gather, from a corporate perspective. One advocate interviewed for a Harvard study compared tenure to lifetime employment, musing that “lifetime employment works against human nature.” It was a viewpoint possible only to someone inured to the American corporate practice of treating workers like so many pawns, hiring and firing them at will.

Carlin went a step further. In what Giroux characterizes as denigration of “those forms of knowledge whose values lie outside of the instrumental sphere of commodification,” the education board chairman proposed to put an end to “at least 50 percent of all non-hard sciences research on American campuses” because they are “a lot of foolishness.” If it’s something without any immediate marketability, he was suggesting, it isn’t worth doing.

This approach, whether you call it profit maximization or accountability, finds little use for such fields of study as literature, ethics, philosophy and sociology — fields that are expected to nurture and develop the ability to think for the public good. Or, if you prefer to be less idealistic about it, they are the fields that permit you to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

The corporatizing of higher education instead stresses practical sciences such as medicine and information technology. Taken by itself, that stress may not be bad, but as Giroux argues and as a spate of news reports suggests, it can produce pernicious effects.

In the example Giroux cites, drug-makers spend billions of dollars to work out things like Viagra, while neglecting to work on treatment of scourges that kill millions of people every year, such as malaria. As academic research becomes profit-motivated, such distortions will get worse.

This brings us to Japan’s Technology Licensing Organization program, another of the country’s attempts to change the situation through recourse to an American model. The model here is the 1984 Bayh-Dole Act, which was meant to facilitate the for-profit use of patents created through federally funded academic research. The TLO program, introduced in 1998, aims to facilitate technology transfers from universities to the private sector. The long years of economic difficulties Japan faced spawned it.

To put some teeth into the program, on Jan. 17 the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced new rules on the amount of royalties that professors could receive for their inventions. The ceiling had been set at 6 million yen ($50,000) — admittedly a pittance by American standards. Giroux cites an example of 10 professors at the University of California and Stanford University earning a total of $69 million in licensing income — an average of $6.9 million per professor, or 828 million yen at the exchange rate of 120 yen per dollar.

The new rules will abolish the ceiling and replace it with 25 to 30 percent of the total royalties earned. The ministry explicitly stated that the purpose of the rule change was to encourage professors to invent more — in short, to get more greedy. Did the ministry think about the distortion of inventive endeavors and the increased conflicts of interest likely to result? The short newspaper notice I read didn’t say. Historically, Japan has copied an American model 15 to 20 years after it formed, and learned its pernicious consequences with a much shorter time lag.

What does all this have to do with Stanford University’s having a Yahoo! Chair of Information Management Systems? The endowed chair, which may more properly be called Yahoo! Founders Chair of Engineering (or so it was when it came into being in 1997), sounds, let’s face it, not quite right for one of America’s proudest institutions of higher learning.

Now, I don’t know how the founders of the Internet directory company, Chih-yuan “Jerry” Yang and David Filo, came up with the name, though I’m inclined to imagine they did it as a lark. Nowadays there are all sorts of Web sites for all sorts of things, and, sure enough, there are a couple of sites dedicated to speculating on what writer Jonathan Swift may have meant by the word Yahoo, with one etymologist suggesting “restless, swift, strong.” But Yang and Filo probably used the word as Swift defined it: “a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precepts or examples.”

But the inappropriateness of the name for Stanford is the least part of the problem. As corporate endowments proliferate, so does what Giroux calls “the brand-naming” of the university, with the endowers often dictating the terms. And as that happens, the danger of what the Japanese call industrial-academic “gluing” increases. Giroux gives the case of Kmart and J. Patrick Kelly.

For another example, you may want to go to the Internet to check the case of General Mills Chair of Cereal Chemistry and Technology and its occupant, Gary Fulcher.

My Japanese academic friends tell me that the practice of brand-naming is still unknown in Japan. But, if America goes, can Japan be far behind?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.