Lamenting the corporate campus

Where have you gone, John D. Rockefeller? One hundred years ago, when Rockefeller began to donate outrageous amounts of cash to various charities, philanthropic giving – even grandiose giving – by the rich was considered a moral duty. Most of today’s philanthropists hardly resemble The Deacon. Instead, for many modern philanthropists, charitable giving has become just another investment. With charity recipients, including universities, becoming more accountable for their largesse, the university student increasingly encounters buildings and curricula inundated with memorable placards and corporate logos – charitable giving no longer comes with no strings attached. Although unavoidable in today’s climate of lowered public higher education funding and bloated university missions, it is with some nostalgia the Commercial Age longs for the gilded.

Andrew Carnegie said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Encouraged by him, the tycoons nee robber-barons shared some of their largesse in grand ways. Carnegie himself provided the funds to construct 2,800 libraries nationwide. Rockefeller built the campuses of the University of Chicago and Spelman College in Atlanta. Cornelius Vanderbilt gave New York its Grand Central Station. And although their names have been celebrated a century later for these acts, they did not expect any direct commercial benefit to come of their generosity.

Today’s donations to universities come with heavy strings. From the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to the Merchant and Gould Technology Alcove to the numerous business-academic partnerships, corporations are expecting a return as a condition of their beneficence. No longer are they content to give for the sake of giving but rather as a means to acquire more wealth. In today’s world, Carnegie’s message has perversely mutated: “The giver who gets nothing for their gift dies disgraced.”

Accountants and management consultants will argue that this is for the best. They will extol the merits of university-corporation synergies created, revenue opportunities exploited, and win-win situations found. They will croon at the benefits of not mere academic research, but directed and commercially-viable research. They will fete the systems of the workplace being applied to the construct of academia. Yet they will somehow miss the point. The academy is not merely a revenue stream. The academy is an endeavor tracing back millennia prior to Adam Smith and his invisible hand. And now it must come as a laborer to ask him for its bread. And the more’s the pity.