Higher education…or hired education?

What is the purpose of America’s universities today?

With many of our most prominent educational institutions increasingly behaving like large corporations, with the for-profit education industry booming, and with U.S. families facing growing mountains of student-loan debt, it’s fair to ask if our educational institutions are still serving their stated purpose.

That’s the question Simon Johnson bluntly poses in his recent op-ed for Project Syndicate called “Predators and Professors.”

“Are America’s great universities still the stalwart custodians of knowledge, leading forces for technological progress, and providers of opportunity that they once were?” Johnson asks. “Or have they become, in part, unscrupulous accomplices to increasingly rapacious economic elites?”

While banks’ political influence and their contributions to political campaigns are well known, their subtle public relations efforts to create respectability for their way of doing business are largely hidden from the public. “This is where universities come in,” Johnson writes.

Johnson notes that Charles Ferguson’s recent award-winning documentary Inside Job, which exposed how “prominent academics received significant sums to promote the interests of large banks and other financial-sector firms.” These payments still are not fully disclosed by the academics that accept them.

One reason for the murkiness is obvious. After all, the potential conflicts of interest are right on the surface.

“Why should we take such work seriously – or any more seriously than other paid consulting work, for example, by a law firm or someone else working for the industry?” Johnson asks, concluding that the presumed answer is that the academic institutions where these people work are well regarded, meaning that, in effect, “the industry benefits from – and is in a sense renting – the university’s name and reputation.”

Johnson concludes by noting the way Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Board, defended J.P. Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon in what was Bollinger’s “first-ever interview or public statement on banking-reform issues (or even finance).” While Bollinger’s intervention may have been helpful to Dimon, Johnson hopes for a different result: that it will “prove productive in advancing the public debate about how ‘too big to fail’ bankers sustain their implicit subsidies’” and how our best and brightest in higher education have hired themselves out for the task.

That is a conversation well worth having.

Click here to read the op-ed