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Commercializing the University

I just read about the University of Wisconsin-Madison's corporate partnerships that bring revenue for the institution but also raise ethical questions. One is example is Mentos. It conducted a campaign that challenged a student to hand out 43,000 packs of the company's gum in order to win a year of free tuition for himself and a concert featuring hip-hop producer DJ Khaled for the university. This kind of blatant commercialism is not healthy for students because it teaches them to promote a product whether or not they believe in it.

In another troubling example, Texas A&M is having a lottery to sell hotel reservations in a facility across the street from Kyle Field, where the Aggies play their football games. For a mere $100,000, A&M supporters and alums can stay close to campus and watch Aggie football games. Sound over-the-top? Well, to date 750 alums have expressed interest in the program. If you’re interested in a suite, you can enter the lottery and start the bidding from $125,000 to $475,000.

Guaranteed room options, as their called, seems to be gaining support at colleges and universities across the U.S. Universities, especially those with top-flight sports teams, are always seeking to monetize their athletic programs. But, are these universities selling their soul to commercial interests in return for a seat at the table? Or, in this case, a room across the stadium for long-distance travelers.

I have previously blogged about conflicts in the biotech industry and research by professors, and increasing commercialism at academic institutions industry. In the latter, I pointed out that Penn State University and the University of Minnesota had signed contracts with Pepsi-Cola ($14 million) and Coca-Cola ($28 million), respectively, giving the beverage companies sole rights on campus to sell their products. These pay to play agreements limit choice and should be discussed in classrooms in the context of free or speech and whether such agreements are ethical.

Other conflicts of interest abound including selling patents developed by university researchers to pharmaceutical companies and conducting “independent research” on the efficacy of new drugs in their experimental phase. Does anyone believe the researchers would write a crucial report IF the pharmaceutical companies are donors to the university?

I recently read an insightful publication, University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, in which the author, Jennifer Washburn, states:

“During the past two decades, commercial forces have transformed virtually every aspect of academic life. Corporate funding of universities is growing and the money comes with strings attached. In return for corporate largesse, universities are acting more and more like for-profit patent factories, while professors are behaving more like businessmen. Secrecy is replacing the free flow of basic knowledge, university funds are shifting from the humanities to more commercially lucrative science labs, and the skill of teaching is valued less and less. The consequences of the new academic-industrial complex are wide-ranging and disturbing.”

So, what’s the problem with a university raising funds from corporate and other commercial interests?

  • In the UW-Madison case, one student is picked among many raising questions about the fairness of the process.

  • In the Texas A&M case, the monies often go right back into athletic activities, not to improving classroom instruction.

  • Academic independence is threatened. Imagine if Pepsi and Coke used child labor overseas. Would the universities criticize the donors?

  • The pay for play arrangements send the wrong message to students that out in the real world they may have to compromise their integrity to gain business for their employers.

  • Funded professors who conduct research under these agreements are taken out of the classroom and paid enormous salaries thereby requiring universities to hire lecturers who are underpaid, and/or increasing class sizes.

Are there other models of corporate-university partnerships the work? I do know of one. The French company Airbus Group signed partnership agreements with seven leading European aeronautics and engineering universities to ensure students graduate with the skills and competencies needed by the industry in the future. These partnerships seek to improve the abilities of graduates and set them up for positions in industry. It’s an interesting and, seemingly, worthwhile model in contrast with the U.S. model that seeks to enrich universities and does nothing to improve instruction or the abilities of graduates.

The ethical issues of corporate-university partnerships in the U.S. need to be addressed. What bothers me the most is it’s another step down the ethical slippery slope, like denying the right to free speech of those with controversial points of view. Rather than opening up the minds of university students, colleges and universities are contributing to the closing of their minds.

This blog was first posted on Pilant's Business Ethics blog on November 9, 2017.

Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, is a Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His new blog on higher education ethics can be found at: Visit Steve’s website at:

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