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Academic Capitalism and the New Economy

reviewed by Leonard J. Waks - 2005

coverTitle: Academic Capitalism and the New Economy
Author(s): Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoads
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801879493, Pages: 370, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie (1997) published their classic study Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies and the Entrepreneurial University eight years ago. Responding to the growing interest in the globalization and commercialization of academe, they examined the growth of market and market-like behaviors (or in the authors’ neat title phrase, “academic capitalism”) in the research universities of four English-language countries: Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. By “market behaviors,” Slaughter and Leslie referred to universities’ for-profit activities, including patenting and subsequent royalty and license arrangements and spin-off companies, as well as sales of products such as sports paraphernalia and profit-sharing arrangements with external food service and book vendors. By “market-like behaviors,” they referred to other forms of institutional and individual competition for money, including competition for grants and contracts, fees from industry partnerships, and endowment funds (pp. 11, 71n, 209). Using a variety of midlevel theories and a variety of research methods, they demonstrated that academic capitalism, in this sense, had been expanding since 1980 in all four of the nations they examined. A number of studies since that time have confirmed similar patterns in several other nations (see, for example, Etzkowitz, Webster, & Healy 1998, Chs. 7-10).

Reviewing this growing literature on university-industry relations, including Slaughter and Leslie’s book (1997), Melissa Anderson (2001) raised three concerns: (a) that the authors in the field were struggling to find appropriate theories through which to understand these relations, (b) that they were focusing too narrowly on research and research funding in the universities, and not adequately exploring other forms of academic capitalism, and (c) that they all tended to take individual organizations as their units of analysis and thus were neglecting the roles of emerging networks of interacting organizations. Anderson suggested that a network theory would hold great promise for future work in this field.

Although not explicitly responding to Anderson’s particular worries, Slaughter and Rhoads, in the book under review, lay them to rest. The authors offer a new, comprehensive theory of academic capitalism, explaining the emerging roles not just of researchers, but also of other faculty members, students, midlevel managers, presidents, and trustees, all in terms of emerging social networks. As the authors state:

The theory of academic capitalism focuses on networks—new circuits of knowledge, interstitial organizational emergence, networks that intermediate between public and private sector, extended managerial capacity—that link institutions as well as faculty, administrators, academic professionals, and students to the new economy. (p.15)

These network linkages result, according to Slaughter and Rhoads, in a new “academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime.” This notion of a “regime” derives from Michel Foucault’s (1980) concept of “disciplinary regimes” governing the movement through society of what Foucault calls “power/knowledge” (pp. 37-38, 67). For Foucault, nineteenth- and twentieth-century professionals portrayed themselves as independent from the state, but their careers were in fact financed through state-supported institutions such as universities and hospitals, and their discourses circulated through these institutions, lending the institutions “scientific” authority while borrowing state authority from them. In the twenty-first century, Slaughter and Rhoads theorize, professionals, including academic professionals of all sorts, are now allying themselves with market and corporate elites and in the process breaking away from the state and from the compact to serve the public good.

The authors set out to define this new regime, demonstrate its growing dominance, and reflect on its implications. These tasks are achieved in an orderly sequence of 12 chapters, most of which report on the authors’ research studies directed at defined groups of academic actors (e.g., researchers or students, presidents or trustees).

The first chapter summarizes the proposed theory of academic capitalism as involving a new “knowledge/learning regime,” and the second reviews policies established since 1980 that have opened new opportunities for academic capitalist practices and encouraged academic players to respond. Significantly, the authors deemphasize the resource dependency explanations featured in much earlier work in favor of a constructivist view that assigns academics themselves a proactive role in the establishment of academic capitalism. Although periodic crises in funding may have established a climate favorable to entrepreneurial responses, the authors contend, new opportunities for personal and institutional enrichment have made scholars and institutional leaders themselves the influential shapers of the new capitalist knowledge/learning regime. The agency of specific groups of academic actors in the construction of the new knowledge/learning regime is a central motif that runs throughout the book.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss new patent policies and their impact on the lives of academic researchers and graduate students. The authors contrast a “public goods knowledge/learning regime,” based on Mertonian values of scientific communalism, disinterestedness, the free flow of knowledge, and organized skepticism, with an “academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime,” (28f) based on such values as entrepreneurial spirit, profit, free trade, and economic growth. Analyzing the changing patent policies of leading public and private universities in six states, the authors conclude that the public goods regime is being supplanted by the academic capitalism regime. Faculty and graduate student researchers have been increasingly drawn into new relations with industry, research is patented rather than published, intellectual property is managed by midlevel administrators to optimize profits, and the free circulation of knowledge is constrained. Knowledge moves in new circuits as industry actors communicate research needs and have priority as recipients of research results. New organizations form both within the university (e.g., offices of technology transfer) and beyond (e.g., associations of directors of technology transfer), and these organizations influence the direction of research. Researchers feel ambivalent about these developments, welcoming new profit opportunities while chafing at new restrictions in research agenda setting and academic publication.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on copyright policies and their impact on instruction, faculty staffing, and student learning. Copyright policies have developed more recently than patent policies but affect the core teaching function of universities more directly, as knowledge formerly in the public domain comes to be treated as raw material that can be transformed by managed faculty labor into products sold for profit. Using the same set of universities as in the previous chapters, the authors trace the development of copyright policies to determine whether there has been a shift in the balance of power from autonomous faculty who “own” their syllabi and course materials to managed faculty, reconceived as producers of copyrightable materials owned by the institution. Although distinct copyright offices have been established at universities only infrequently, the authors conclude, new circuits of knowledge have formed as universities have opened for-profit distance learning operations or partnered with for-profit distance education companies. Distance education has required its own new managerial professionals, who also exert pressure within universities as well as through their new professional organizations that lobby governments and accrediting agencies in favor of pro-distance-education policies.

Chapter 7 examines academic capitalism at the level of the university department. Since 1980, states’ funding of U.S. research universities has diminished from 50% to 29% of the universities’ operating budgets. Federal research grants and contracts have also diminished as a budgetary share. To make up for the accompanying revenue shortfalls, universities have raised student tuitions and shifted tuition revenues from undergraduate instruction to research and graduate education. Citizens and governments increasingly have resisted these revenue reallocation measures, and university departments have been pressured to generate other sources of revenue. The chapter examines, through interviews with department heads and randomly selected faculty members, the responses of departments of science, engineering, mathematics, and social sciences at 11 public research universities to these pressures. The authors conclude that although entrepreneurial behaviors are now commonplace at universities, the transition to an entrepreneurial culture at the department level is “very much incomplete, uneven, and even contested” (p. 203). Although presidents and provosts have urged department heads and faculty to seek corporate research contracts, many scholars remain wedded to the public goods regime and the prestige associated with federal research grants. The bulk of departmental activity has thus been devoted to increasing tuition revenues by developing programs linked to job opportunities in the new economy and to seeking charitable gifts. As a result, much corporate research has taken place not in academic departments, but in research centers designed explicitly to connect universities and corporations.

Whereas previous literature on university-industry relations has attended primarily to faculty, chapter 8 focuses on university presidents, studying their roles in “planning, contracting, and building infrastructure for economic development” (p. 209). The authors gather data on presidential roles from documents on the Web site of Internet2, a consortium of over 200 universities established to develop and deploy advanced network applications for improving Internet capabilities. The authors examine how the leaders of Internet2 work together, generate and leverage state funds, and shape universities as milieus of knowledge innovation and use. They conclude that the development of network technologies and the knowledge economy enables university presidents to play a more direct role than previously in “forward planning for research, innovation, deployment, and testing of infrastructure, products, processes and services” for the American economy (p. 231). Instead of doing this as a public service, however, the presidents, working through Internet2 and other mediating organizations, have instead chosen to “develop the knowledge economy as a privatized and commercialized enterprise in which they participated and in whose revenue streams their institutions shared” (p. 231). New mediating organizations like Internet2 enable putatively public institutions to take on commercial functions and thus blur the distinctions between market, state, and university sectors.

Chapter 9 explores the role of trustee networks in connecting universities and corporations. Scholars of business organizations have theorized that interlocking boards serve as avenues for inter-organizational information transmission (p. 234). They have studied the density and flexibility of these networks, finding that virtually all large U.S. firms are linked in a single network based on shared board members. Slaughter and Rhoads in turn studied the boards of the top 10 public and the top 10 private universities (as ranked by federal dollars devoted to science and engineering projects). They compared the trustee lists to lists of corporate board members of the 30 best-capitalized U.S. firms, as well as those of the 500 firms expending the most on research and development, to identify individuals sitting on both university and corporate boards and the density of resulting board interlocks. The 10 private universities were found to have 100 directors of the corporate firms as trustees, forming a densely interlocked university-corporation directorate. The 10 public universities, by contrast, were found to have only 16 corporate directors as trustees, and significantly, none of the boards connected one university to any other through a corporate member link. Nonetheless the two groups of universities engaged in similar market and market-like behaviors, suggesting to Slaughter and Rhoads that the public universities have alternative sources for the information made available to private universities through corporate trustees.

Chapter 10 (authored by Samantha King and Slaughter) studies all-school corporate contracts (e.g., with athletic shoe and soft drink providers) and university trademarks and logos as marketable symbols. The authors conclude that the boundary between corporate and university marketing has dissolved and that education is being eclipsed by commercial functions; students are now sold as captive audiences to corporations seeking to profit from students’ spending power. This theme of student exploitation is further developed in chapter 11, which deals with the market for undergraduate students. The authors discuss marketing practices that serve institutions’ economic needs, target economically privileged student markets at the expense of underserved groups, and promote consumer capitalism within captive student markets.

The final chapter reviews the studies presented in the previous chapters and their bearing on the theory of academic capitalism. One by one, various groups of academic players are shown to be involved in new circuits of knowledge and information, involving new forms of managerial capability and new interstitial and intermediating organizations, which collectively impose a new academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime on the university. This regime, the authors assert, is now dominant, but not hegemonic; it coexists with the previously dominant, but now secondary, public goods regime which maintains some continuing influence over mainstream faculty.

Academic Capitalism and the New Economy is an impressive book and a major contribution to knowledge. The authors’ use of mid-level theories from various social science and humanities disciplines to generate relevant research studies is exemplary. The theory of academic capitalism presented in its pages will certainly stimulate and guide further studies in higher education for some time to come. It successfully addresses earlier shortcomings in, and significantly advances, the field of university-industry relations.

Despite this achievement, I have some concerns about both the central argument of the book and the field of higher education as conceived by the authors and many of their coworkers.

First, some comments about the book’s central argument. Not all of the studies in the book are equally successful in supporting the theory of academic capitalism. Consider the findings that (a) university departments are successfully evading pressures to engage in corporate research and pushing this research to the institutional periphery (chapter 7), (b) that stand-alone for-profit university distance learning corporations have often failed (chapter 5, p. 153) and (c) that mainstream faculty remain largely committed to the prestige order associated with federal research grants and regard corporate funding as second-rate (chapter 7, p. 202). These findings suggest that the academic capitalist regime may remain somewhat less dominant than the authors suggest. Lacking a metric for “regime dominance,” we are left with a judgment call that can be disputed.

Further, if the lines between public and private sectors are now as blurred as the authors state, we would expect (as they in fact did) that university-corporate networks among trustees of public universities would be much more like those of private ones than they turned out to be (p. 244). It will not do merely to suggest, as the authors do, that the flows of knowledge between corporations and universities that are generated for private universities through interlocking directorates must somehow be established in some undemonstrated but nonetheless comparable way for public universities.

Now I turn to the authors’ definition of their field of study and raise two questions about what appears to me its narrow (and, perhaps unconsciously, even elitist) scope. First, Slaughter and Rhoads provide a thin sketch of the educational needs of the new economy and the corresponding educational projects in the neo-liberal state. This sketch may be adequate background for their studies of major public and private research universities.  We will, however, need a more comprehensive account of the new economy, and a broader account of tertiary institutions, including community colleges and four-year colleges, if we hope to achieve an adequate understanding of the contemporary state-market-education triad. The authors allude, for example, to community colleges as serving occupational training needs of workers in the knowledge economy. But they do not follow up empirically on this important theme, because such colleges fall outside the scope of their inquiry. I found their neglect of for-profit adult convenience universities particularly troubling. Clearly actors such as John Sperling of the University of Phoenix were instrumental in shaping the new policy climate, seizing new opportunities, and establishing conceptual and practical templates used by mainstream players for market behaviors in higher education. Corporate universities such as Motorola University and Marriott University also demand some attention in any account of emerging academic formations in relation to trans-national corporations in the new economy. To neglect all of these institutions in a theory of academic capitalism, and to focus entirely upon previously dominant institutional types, is somewhat akin to focusing on five-star restaurants in an account of “food capitalism” in the food service industry of the new economy, and neglecting the likes of McDonald’s.

Finally, a broader conceptualization of the educational projects of the neo-liberal state might also have enabled the authors to situate their theory of academic capitalism in a broader context of educational privatization and commercialization, one that extends beyond the university to the K–12 sector—and thus to charter schools and voucher programs, to educational vendor corporations like Edison and Sylvan, and even to home schooling. I am not suggesting, of course, that the authors have any obligation to treat these topics extensively in a volume focused on the tertiary sector. They should, however, at least acknowledge them as existing on the same theoretical and moral plane as the topics they do address. Education, as Harold Hodgkins (1985) taught us two decades ago, is “all one system.” It is, for example, difficult to understand problems of inequitable access to higher education (a topic central to the authors) without foregrounding systemic inequalities in the K–12 system. Failing to place tertiary education in a larger context of educational arrangements in the study of academic capitalism and the new economy strikes me as somewhat like offering a study of the impact of capitalism on contemporary architecture in which only the upper stories of buildings are considered.

Despite these concerns, all students of the educational arrangements in the new economy will find themselves in debt to the authors for their far-reaching theory of academic capitalism, the wide variety of studies they offer to confirm it, and for the standard they set and the model they provide for subsequent work.  


Anderson, M. (2001). The complex relations between the academy and industry: Views from the literature. The Journal of Higher Education, 72, 226-246.  

Etzkowitz, H, Webster, A., and Healy, P.  (1998).  Capitalizing knowledge: New interactions of industry and academe. Albany: SUNY Press.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hodgkinson, H. (1985). All one system: Demographics of education kindergarten through graduate school. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Slaughter, S. Leslie, L. (1997).  Academic capitalism: Politics, policies and the entrepreneurial university , Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2521-2528
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11837, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:32:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Leonard Waks
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    LEONARD J. WAKS is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Temple University, Philadlephia PA. His work focuses on the educational arrangements of post-industrial societies, and the contributions of philosophical pragmatism to educational restructuring He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as Technology's School (JAI, 1995). His recent publications include "How Globalization Can Cause Fundamental Curriculum Change" (Journal of Educational Change, 2003), "The Philosophical Concept of a Networked Common School" (e-Learning, 2004), and "Brown v. Board, Common Citizenship, and the Limits of Curriculum," (Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 2005).
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