Should our universities be ‘vassals of industry?’

Mutual parasitism

By Tyler Roach

With the Iowa Senate in recess, Branstad once again rewarded Des Moines

business person Marvin Pomerantz for his significant campaign donations. As

a result, Iowa’s already diseased public universities have been reinfected

with virus-like Pomerantz.

Given that he took little time before insinuating that he intends to

debilitate our public universities by pushing them in the same direction

that he has in the past, what effects can we expect his return to have? One

that is likely is the strengthening of the regents’ chronic commitment to

increased ties between our universities and industry. As Pomerantz claimed

in 1991, “Technology is the key to industrial growth, and that’s where our

state universities must play a critical role.”

That strengthened ties between universities and the business community

have and will prove financially beneficial to the latter is not to be

doubted. What should be called into question is the implicit assumption

that the most important concern of our universities, whether in general or

in relation to industry, is to provide for the welfare of industry.

Industry would also benefit from extensive deregulation. Minimum wage,

environmental protection and child labor laws, however, all serve concerns

more fundamental than that of industrial welfare. Similarly, Pomerantz’s

regard for the university as a mere vassal of industry neglects concerns

fundamental to the social responsibilities of our public universities, and

thus, fundamental to the good of Iowans.

Our public universities’ role as it relates to industry must primarily

be one of critical reflection upon industry conduct. Our professors of

science, engineering and agriculture are responsible for monitoring how

industry behaves. The fact that they have all too often relied on industry

for research funds has rendered them ill-equipped to fulfill their


It may be objected that a research professor is qualified only in his

or her own field of specialization, not in passing value judgments upon how

industry chooses to exploit his or her field. For instance, a chemist may

know how to synthesize a chemical and why it is toxic, but he or she is not

to pass judgment upon the ethical or social aspects associated with its

use. To do so would be to infringe on the job of those who specialize in

value theory. This objection is unrealistic, however, since current

scientific and technological knowledge is so complex and changes with such

rapidity that oftentimes only a specialist can grasp the real consequences

of its industrial applications. Thus, the very nature of scientific and

technological knowledge makes it necessary that our professors be willing

to make judgments regarding industry’s use of such knowledge.

Personal gains associated with industry-funded, university research

prove too great a lure to ensure a healthy environment for making sincere

value judgments. When the interests of our professors are intertwined with

those of industry, it greatly diminishes the ability of our public

universities to act as agents of objective criticism.

Exchanges taking place between many of our professors and industry

mirror the one which has once again taken place between Branstad and

Pomerantz: You give me money, I’ll give you power. In the case of our

professors, knowledge is the commodity being used for trade, but the

clich about knowledge being equivalent to power should be kept in


Even if the fact is ignored for the moment that increasing the ties

between our public universities and industry protects vested interests, it

is not surprising that such a policy is supported by Branstad and

Pomerantz. These ties create an unhealthy form of mutual parasitism,

analogous to that which has been blatantly engaged in by its most prominent

political supporters here in Iowa.

Tyler Roach is a senior in philosophy, English and religious

studies from Des Moines.

Copyright 1995 by the Iowa State Daily Publications Board. All rights reserved.

No redistribution without the express written consent of the Iowa State Daily Editor in Chief.