Thursday, October 3, 2013

Conflicts of interest and the privatization of the public university

Today marked the start of our Ethics and Professional Integrity discussion seminar that I'm taking as part of the Professors for the Future (PFTF) program (well technically it's the second class, but I was in Alaska last week and missed the start of fall quarter). The topic was "Conflicts of interest and the privatization of the public university," and we had two readings:

Kezar, A.J. (2005). Challenges for higher education in serving the public good. In A.J. Kezar, T.C. Chambers, & J.C. Burkhardt (Eds), Higher education for the public good (pp. 23-42). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

  • This was a perspective on the changing nature of Higher Education, where universities have moved from their historical roles as social institutions serving the public good, and towards commercialized ventures with strong links to industry. Our discussion group noted that although some of the evidence were a bit one sided, many of the arguments were spot on: the move towards cost effective lecture-based courses, increasing numbers of part-time and contract faculty, corporate administrative structures, and privatized and commercialized research.
  • The one thing this article missed was the impact of technology (not surprising, since today's technological landscape was still very much emerging when the article was published in 2005). Although we also noted that technology can exacerbate some of the problems in Higher Education (e.g. online courses that bring in substantial tuition money, with little student interaction beyond "ticking boxes").

Shamoo, A.E. & Resnik, D.B. (2003). Conflicts of interest and scientific objectivity. Responsible conduct of research (pp. 139-162). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • We tied this article into the previous reading, basically by arguing that the new landscape of Higher Education is essentially in conflict with itself (the lofty mandate of pure intellectual pursuits vs. the new reality of students as paying customers).
  • Our discussion emphasized that conflicts of interest are everywhere, and not necessarily bad. However, it is prudent to be aware of these conflicts and disclose them up front whenever possible. The case studies in this reading focused on COIs in the life sciences, but our group noted that the humanities are just as susceptible (e.g. authoring a textbook and requiring students to buy your textbook for a course).
We discussed how the incentive structure and cutthroat competition in academia can promote certain conflicts of interest. There were several case studies where corporate financial interests (accepting funding from pharmaceutical companies) led to unethical research practices. I also argued that paywalled articles and non-open access data put scientists in conflict with what's fundamentally best for the public good--especially if the research was taxpayer-funded in the first place.

I'm really enjoying this discussion seminar - we have a small, lively group representing both the sciences and humanities, so its been great to hear viewpoints from a diversity of disciplines.

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