University and/as Business: Critic as Ishmaelite

by Mark Wallace

I have had occasion to reflect lately on the relations between university and business. These are certainly growing stronger and will continue to do so. In the EU context, this is made manifest in, for example, Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. It is this programme that decides where the EU money goes in terms of third-level research. The three pillars of this programme are:

Excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal problems.

This central need to provide “industrial leadership” means that universities, in order to receive EU funding, must demonstrate how their work is “aligned with the needs of the business sector”. Such alignment is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, classically, it was key to the university mission that it avoided a narrow focus on professional development. Rather, it was expected to adhere to a capacious notion of human development:

[The University] neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. (John Henry Newman, in 1852)

The University, then, always aimed at something extra, something more. Newman resisted somewhat defining what that something more was, on the premise that it was undefinable, but he did state it in general terms:

[A] University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

But the rhetoric of humanism has given way to the rhetoric of professionalism, and Universities are now answerable to the marketplace.

Bridging the gap between university and business is a task that has proceeded apace recently. Silicon Valley, for example, is considered a product of the synthesis of university and business creating speedy technological and economic change. Yet failure of communication between the two fields seems to be still the norm. What is called for in the Science Business Innovation Board’s Making Industry-University Partnerships Work: Lessons for successful collaborations (2012) is greater strategic attention to business partnership from universities. This document recommends particularly long-term strategic partnerships between the two sectors. The Newmanian idea of the university is explicitly challenged

Today’s universities largely embrace a model of higher education developed over 100 years ago. A new vision should include producing the highly skilled workforce for a globally competitive economy. The university in the 21st century should be viewed not just as a generator of ideas but as a source of knowledge and competence that can benefit society.

Here the university’s missions to align with business and to benefit society are eventually seen as one and the same. Thus the very important question of whether and to what extent our western model of capitalistic business is per se a social good is wholly elided. Here we find, clearly enough, the limitations of the university-business partnership model. Not that one necessarily calls for a wholesale rejection of this model, but it is far from sufficient in itself to fulfil the university’s social mission. Even while elements within the university co-operate with business, others must fulfil the critical mission of the university, and continue to question the dominant economic and social practices. A critical distance from such practices is a necessity, and must be maintained a sector whose job it is precisely to take an outside view of society. But perhaps within the university is not the place to undertake this. Perhaps it is, instead, up to the individual to articulate such a criticism, unprofessional as it may be. Thus he incurs the displeasure of the business world and “wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light” (Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters). At times he or she may even wander as a wild Ishmaelite through the third-level sector, as a liminal figure therein, not aligned to the interests of business (alas), but simply tolerated, capable of interpolating the odd shaft to the heart of the university-business relation, with what ultimate result who can tell.