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A fascinating U news roundup — and its inclusion of academic debate

In addition to fielding reporters’ questions, requests for experts and such, the University of Minnesota’s News Service compiles headlines of interest to the university community and sends them out late each morning via e-mail to anyone who cares to subscribe. It’s my personal favorite content aggregator.

Often the roundup, with its unpredictable mix of current events, agricultural intelligence and social science, reads like nothing so much as a quirky commentary on life in the upper Midwest. An omnivorous reader can spend hours hoovering up fun facts about SweeTango apples, the latest in bear hibernation research and the psychology behind consumer decision-making.

Friday’s installment carried an item about wine made in Minnesota from frontenac gris, a grape developed by the University of Minnesota, a story about how you can tell it’s time to throw out a pair of shoes and a nugget entitled “Academic Freedom and the Corporate University.”

This last one ate my morning, and I bring it up here because a) if you follow higher ed, you should get ready to bookmark some URLs, and b) the fact that the News Service cheerfully e-mailed out two incisive critiques of the U of M’s commercialization and the dangers said trend poses for academic freedom is a charming illustration of, well, academic freedom.

The embedded link opened a blog post on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education penned by Bill Gleason, an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. That post, in turn, linked to an article in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, and to two posts to a blog maintained by Gleason under the pen name Mr. Bonzo — “aka, the Whining Dinosaur and Graffiti Monster.”

Gleason was not trying to drive traffic to his blog, The Periodic Table, but to highlight two guest posts by Michael McNabb, who earned two degrees at the U of M, one of them a JD, and a lifetime member of the alumni association. McNabb’s posts are entitled, respectively, “University Inc.” and “University Inc. II.”

‘Education as a private enterprise’
A sample:

“Having failed to persuade a majority of state legislators of the value to society of a well-educated citizenry, the U of M administration has embraced the concept of education as a private enterprise. (If you can’t beat them, join them.) Now the administration does not flinch at increasing tuition at a dizzying rate. Like used car salesmen, the administrators attempt to convince the students and their parents of the value by ‘puffing’ their product (on the way to becoming ‘the third greatest public research university’ on the planet).

“The huge increases in tuition ‘revenues’ are not spent on improving the quality of instruction on either the undergraduate or the graduate level. Instead, as in any other business, the executives (administrators) seek out even greater money-making ventures. So we have a University that is planning to operate a gravel pit in UMore Park.” 

Lest you think this is bloggish bloviating, Periodic Table seems to have a minor obsession with getting hold of and archiving public records that support its case. 

Disparate treatment of researchers at Brown
The other link went to an Academe article outlining, among other things, the disparate treatment given two different Brown University researchers who became mired in controversy. You can read the saga for yourself, but I’ll just let you know that the one who brought in nearly $9 million in research grants fared better.

Gleason draws a parallel between the Brown story and the ongoing controversy over the 2003 suicide of a U of M student who was taking the drug Seroquel as part of a clinical trial headed by Psychiatry Department Chair Dr. Charles Schulz.

In December, eight university bioethicists — including Carl Elliot, who writes prolifically  and persuasively on the topic of what’s wrong with clinical research — asked the U of M to commission an independent investigation of the case. The U demurred.

I daresay all of this is food for thought in light of the budgetary bloodletting going on over at the Capitol and the related talk of the U of M’s role as a driver of the state’s economy. Thank goodness there’s still enough academic freedom for debate on just how far the university should go in pursuit of research dollars.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 03/07/2011 - 04:39 pm.

    Many thanks for your kind words.

    You link to the Trump Umbach economic justification for more U funding.

    These folks did not just fall off the turnip truck and have an axe to grind.

    From the Star-Tribune:

    February 18, 2004

    Minnesota stands to gain 4,000 jobs by 2010 if the Legislature commits $70 million to fostering the biotechnology industry, according to a report prepared on behalf of two of the institutions that likely would receive some of that money.

    The report, released Tuesday, was greeted with questions about the reliability of its conclusions.

    Tripp Umbach Healthcare Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based firm specializing in economic impact studies for health care providers, prepared the report for the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.


    And where are those jobs?

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