Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit:
• Oil giants spent $880 million over the last decade to support energy research at 10 large universities, according to a report covered by Kate Sheppard on the Mother Jones website. The report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “Big Oil Goes to College,” concludes that these ties constitute a threat to academic independence and good science.
• Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).
• The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently reported on an incident in which Big Ag seemed to be calling shots at the University of Iowa: A shoo-in candidate for a sustainability program position was brushed off after he suggested that cows eat grass—not a message that sits well with the factory-farm titans who are entwined with the university.
• Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.
It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.