Illusions of Excellence and the Selling of the University:
A Micro-Study


Janet Atkinson-Grosjean Interdisciplinary Studies University of British Columbia

[email protected]


The article describes a preliminary study of a western Canadian university’s” research awareness campaign” and links it to the parallel appointment of a new president with a strong” public affairs” focus. Both campaign and appointment are viewed as contributing to the commodification of knowledge. The rhetoric is seen as paradigmatic of the penetration of” market” discourse into the academy. The key problems seem to be (1) the administration’s uncritical and unreflective pursuit of the economic at the expense of the intellectual, (2) the professoriate’s passive acceptance of the new status quo, and (3) selective interpretation of market doctrines by university administrations in general, allowing them to attack the” front line” while preserving “management.” A larger study will pursue the issues raised.

Illusions of Excellence and the Selling of the University: A Micro- Study

That the substance must not be allowed to stand in the way of the shadow is one of the fundamental principles…the universities… have taken over from…the business community.

Thorstein Veblen, 1918

The question…is no longer” Is it true?” But” What use is it?” In the context of the mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to:” Is it saleable?”

Jean-François Lyotard, 1979


Said (1994), after Orwell, says that clichés are evidence of the decay of language. Like background music in a supermarket, they seduce the mind into” passive acceptance of unexamined ideas and sentiments” (p28). Why would universities – supposed citadels of critical thought – unquestioningly adopt an outmoded and clichéd form of corporate discourse? 1 Long after the wave has passed in the business world, why have words like” vision”,” mission”, and” excellence” become omnipresent in the rhetoric of university presidents and administrators? And why are mission statements, vision documents, and research planning exercises so empty and instrumental?

Corporate thinking is dangerous for intellectuals, warns Said. It is antithetical to the questioning and skepticism we expect from those privileged to work in universities. But corporate thinking, according to Readings (1996:11), is part of a trend towards universities as “consumer-oriented corporations,” dominated not by academics but by administrators and their logics of accountability and excellence.” It is no longer clear what the place of the university is within society,” says Readings,” nor what the exact nature of that society is” (Readings, 1996:2).

The adoption of corporate discourse on campus is one facet of a pervasive new market-driven ethos which commodifies the products of knowledge, and knowledge itself, and offers them for sale in the marketplace of ideas. Left unchecked, it valorises application over enquiry, research over teaching, and science and technology over all other forms of knowledge. In doing so, it neglects traditional areas of scholarship which produce ideas rather than outcomes, and therefore potentially undermines the university’s wider social role. The purpose of this paper is to offer an example of this commodification in action by following a western Canadian (hereafter WCU) university’s campaign to promote public awareness of its research. The campaign is structured around the explicit understanding that knowledge can be promoted and sold using appropriate technologies of consumption. For clarity, it should be noted that there are only a handful of small private universities in Canada. It is knowledge produced in public institutions that is being commodified.

Nature of the Study

The study was an informal seed enquiry into the penetration of WCU by the market. Its purpose was to establish a preliminary framework for a later, more comprehensive, case study of commodification of public sector research in Canada. While I used documentary analysis and ethnographic techniques to examine the campaign’s structure and underlying purpose, the limited scope of the enquiry restricts the amount of analysis that can usefully be undertaken. Thus, the discussion of the campaign itself is largely descriptive. To conduct the study, I attended a workshop with WCU’s new president on” The Changing Role of the Research-Intensive2 University” and discussed the topic informally with several students and members of faculty. I examined newspaper stories and WCU’s public affairs publications and downloaded material from the websites of several other Canadian universities. I read widely in the associated literatures. And I conducted two in-depth interviews, a solo one with the campaign co-ordinator (hereafter CC) the other with the Vice- President, Research (hereafter VPR) with CC” sitting-in” at VPR’s request.

The administrators did not question the rightness of commodification (a term they did not know) or the appropriateness of importing market values into the university. Their insouciance reinforced my scepticism. I do not take the position that commodification of knowledge is undesirable by definition. After all, commodification and universities are old friends. This is not a new phenomenon, as reference to Veblen (1918) and Noble (1977) would demonstrate. But I am concerned that the universe of discourse appears closed to other elements – like culture, the arts, and humanities-when the promotion of research in science and technology dominates the agenda so completely (cf Marcuse, 1964).

I am troubled that the administration’s pursuit of commodification, in one university at least, seems largely unreflective and based on the unquestioned assumption that the trend cannot be resisted because there is no real alternative. As VPR put it,” if someone did [resist] they’d be all alone.” In view of such attitudes, it seems almost inevitable – as Lyotard (1979) predicted-that the university will abandon its traditional role in favour of isomorphism with private-sector interests.

Commodification in the University

Two decades ago, Lyotard’s was a lonely voice warning of an impending legitimation crisis and a qualitative alteration in the status of universities and knowledge. In the Canadian context, recent work by Readings (1996), Emberley (1996), Bercuson et al (1997), and others, indicates Lyotard is lonely no longer. The legitimation crisis seems to be upon us

When defined as a commodity, knowledge tends to be valued in political and economic terms, rather than for its social or cultural significance (Shumar, 1997). And, as a political and economic question, it is clearly implicated in power. Particularly in the domain of science, research tends to be funding-driven. If money controls research does it thereby effectively control knowledge? Is Lyotard overly cynical or merely realistic when he says” whoever is the wealthiest has the best chance of being right” (p44)? Is his assessment of performativity uber alles correct? That is, when knowledge is judged instrumentally, in terms of its efficiency and utility, does education become reduced to marketable technologies and work skills? (Noble, 1997; Shumar, 1997).

According to Webster (1995), in Britain granting councils judge university research on the basis of performativity. Proposals are assessed according to their market potential and competitive advantage-no potential, no funding; no funding, no research. Projects lacking commercial capacity – many of them in the arts and humanities – get sidelined. Similar principles of” new public management” operate in most OECD jurisdictions, although to different degrees. In Canada, for a variety of reasons, public service reform has been less draconian than elsewhere. The funding councils have been able to maintain somewhat more flexibility. Nevertheless, throughout the research community, the emphasis – and the lion’s share of funding – falls on commercially viable applications. At the same time, performativity measures influence how education is being delivered in universities. In knowledge societies, professional schools and practical disciplines are burgeoning – some at full-cost recovery – while more traditional areas of scholarship are in retreat.3

Commodification is a process where the economic comes to dominate social institutions and social life. To borrow Bourdieu’s terms, cultural, symbolic, academic, and human capital become subordinated to economic capital. Noble’s (1997) 4 reading of knowledge commodification is that universities have become sites of capital accumulation, where research converts knowledge into market-tradeable, commercially viable products and processes. Over the last two decades, intellectual activity has been systematically converted into intellectual capital, he says, offering patents as a prime example.

Noble believes knowledge-based industries – like space, electronics, and bioengineering – pursued a deliberate strategy, beginning with the oil and economic crises of the seventies, of converting university research into corporate intellectual capital. He says,” within a decade [of the crises] there was a proliferation of industrial partnerships and new proprietary arrangements, as industrialists and their campus counterparts invented ways to socialise the risks and costs of creating this knowledge while privatising the benefits.”

In the early ’80s, and probably not coincidentally, granting bodies in OECD countries like the US, UK, and Canada reformed their patent policies, giving universities the right and responsibility to commercially exploit discoveries funded by government grants. Soon after, University-Industry Liaison (Technology Transfer) Offices appeared on most campuses to cultivate corporate ties and develop the administrative infrastructure for the commercial exploitation of research. The result, according to Noble, was” a wholesale reallocation of a university’s resources towards its research function at the expense of its educational function.” Newsom (1994) confirms the changes in institutional arrangements and practices that evolved to support corporate linkages. She describes some – like Centres of Excellence, spin-off companies, and research institutes with special funding arrangements – as parasitic on their host institutions (Newsom, 1994: 146-7).

Noble paints universities as impatient virgins, anxious to sell their innocence to the highest bidder. But the stampede to commodify research and secure corporate funding was prompted, in part, by the generalised retreat of government funding in most OECD jurisdictions. This retreat is characteristic of neoliberal economies, where the state tends to move away from supporting and regulating institutions, and delegates these responsibilities to the mediation of the market (Slater, 1997). Late 20th century commodification of university knowledge can be better understood when placed in this wider political-economic context.

Thus, while the motivation of the campaign I will discuss is ostensibly to raise public awareness of university research, it is ultimately about money. It is about winning public support, and thereby political support, in order to reverse the decline in state funding. 5 As VPR says,

Governments have a responsibility to fund research. When funding doesn’t come through we whine…or else we go to Ottawa and lobby politicians and bureaucrats. And they say” we understand what you’re saying, but our constituents don’t understand. You’re not on the radar screen. You need to get there. You need to tell people what you do.”

Consider this statement in the context of latter-day” flexible” economies, where increasingly differentiated products-often composed of non-material elements like culture, information, or knowledge – are marketed to increasingly differentiated consumers.” Telling people what you do” sounds more simple than it is. Reaching fragmented consumers in fragmented markets demands deployment of sophisticated marketing technologies. Under flexible accumulation, commodification is a semiotic process and the marketing of the university and its products is no exception (Shumar, 1997). As well, in a liberal-democratic society,” telling people what you do” is a key element of securing their consent for what you are doing.

Public Relations, Public Awareness, and the Public Sphere

Public relations (PR) is one way of securing popular consent and is an essential component, with advertising, of most marketing strategies; PR and advertising are integral parts of contemporary culture (Webster, 1995; Tumber, 1993). The techniques have colonised all social groups and major public-sector institutions, notably in the form of” image improvement” and advocacy advertising. Public awareness campaigns by universities are excellent examples. In fact,” public awareness campaign” is the preferred euphemism for public-sector PR. Euphemisms are ubiquitous in this industry. Practitioners prefer to” improve communications,” or” get the message across,” rather than” persuade the public about a particular position for payment” – a more accurate description of PR’s rationale.

PR was viewed by initiators like Lippman and Bernays, as a necessary element of liberal democracy. Perhaps they envisioned a more balanced public arena than the one we currently inhabit. Habermas sees PR as undermining the public sphere and contributing to its decline. He considers it culpable of perpetuating disinformation and irrationality in public debate. Many would agree. The escalation of advertising and information management, and the emphasis on persuasion and commodification, is self-evident. It is hard to see how spin-doctored speeches by image-engineered politicians might benefit public institutions. Even so, Habermas’s vision of a declining public sphere is problematic. There is more than one way to look at the situation, as Webster (1995) points out. On one hand, we can agree with Habermas that PR and advertising practices subvert democracy by corrupting the quality of information. On the other hand, we may consider civil society enhanced by the quantity of information available today, the diversity of its sources, and the better-educated citizenry interpreting it.

Notwithstanding the larger debates,” public awareness campaigns” – often crafted with cookie-cutter rhetoric – are increasingly in evidence in educational institutions. Shumar (1997) points to the discursive impact on rules, procedures and regulations. People’s conversations about what they are doing and achieving are articulated differently. Thus when public institutions are drawn into the circuit of commodity production,” the force of the signifiers produced is to ultimately see all meaning in terms of what can be bought, sold, or made profitable. Education has increasingly little meaning outside a system of market relations” (Shumar, 1997: 5).

The system of market relations is emphatically at play in WCU’s public awareness campaign, but it is difficult to tease apart those elements structuring the campaign and those related to the appointment of a new president (hereafter NP). The two are separate but intertwined aspects of the same phenomenon. Both the campaign, and the appointment of this particular president, illustrates several key aspects of the commodification trends outlined above.

Not New but Different

Commodification and the adoption of commercial values are not in themselves new. NP exemplifies – in all respects except gender – those” captains of erudition” of the past who conceived the university as” a business house dealing in merchantable knowledge” and used publicity and” marketable illusions” to promote it (Veblen, 1918: 85, 137). It is probably fair to speculate that the Board approved the nomination of NP for precisely these attributes. The press release announcing the appointment emphasised her” demonstrated strengths” in” difficult financial times.” Her former university’s 25% increase in external research funding was attributed to her efforts.

But if commercial considerations are not new, the contemporary discourse of commodification is different in degree. It is overt, demanding, and unapologetic. And NP’s “feisty” combative style matches the contemporary zeitgeist well. NP sells knowledge. It is her stock-in-trade. And she sells to the highest bidder. Her media interviews, workshops, and speeches hammer home the same themes:

  • Knowledge is the most important commodity.
  • There is a knowledge revolution.
  • We live in a knowledge-based society.
  • We need clearly enunciated visions: targeted markets, targeted performance, and accountability.
  • We must” think” collaborations, development of excellence, strategic linkages.

The tensions of late capitalism enforce increasing isomorphism in institutional fields (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). In other words, there is a tendency to conformity. Not only can we observe the increasing penetration of the university by the market, and the resulting homologies of structure, but also an increasing sameness in the response by universities to the penetration.

This is not the place to explore institutional theory in any detail. But two boundary-spanning elements of isomorphism are worth mentioning: the development of relational networks, and the interconnectedness of institutional elites. These foster mutual awareness and the recognition of involvement in a common enterprise, especially in times of uncertainty and change (Meyer and Rowan, 1977). In turn, these factors promote mimesis – imitation – fostered in part by the transfer of employees among institutions and the sharing of information through membership in” trade” associations (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).

Thus, prior to her appointment, NP occupied a senior administrative position at another western Canadian university (hereafter UNP), where she was VP Research and Public Affairs – the conjunction seems significant. UNP had earlier initiated a highly successful public awareness campaign of its own, many elements of which were imported wholesale into subsequent similar efforts by other institutions, including the campaign studied here. The new president is also a key player, at the national level, in AUCC – the” trade association” of Canadian universities.

VPR acknowledges that isomorphism through mimesis was at work in the design and structure of WCU’s public awareness campaign.

We looked at UNP’s campaign and decided it was conceptually what we wanted… And [three of us] went to UNP for a session with NP and her crew. To learn about it, right? And, um, we really loved it…But we felt we were going to put a different” look” on our campaign. For one thing, if you do it’s better. It’s better to have different ones that are sending the same message.

To the uninitiated, any difference in look is dwarfed by the similarities: three-word slogans; downloadable screen-savers; buttons, bookmarks, and banners; mugs and mousepads; and lots of exclamation marks!!

Notwithstanding the forces structuring conformity, there is competition among universities. The publicity surrounding the annual Maclean’s rankings confirms this. VPR would like to have co-operated with the other provincial universities on the awareness campaign, but:

NP is pretty competitive you know. Every time I say I want things to happen wit [them] she says,” w-e-l-l no, let’s do it ourselves.” Like I wanted to launch the campaign with [the other local] university. I even wanted one slogan for all the universities in the province. But…NP wasn’t keen.

The Grand Narrative

Like VPR and her immediate predecessor, NP comes from the sciences. It is a commonplace that science is the dominant narrative of modernity (see Lyotard, 1979 among others). But together with technology, from which it can no longer be functionally separated,” hard” science – physical, medical, biological, and the interdisciplinary derivatives – is the commodity in question here. It is science and technology that drives most academy-industry partnerships. And it is science and technology that universities are exploiting with patents and spin-off enterprises.

Often, for scientists, research and science are synonymous. It takes intellectual effort to recall that research happens in other fields, even when such acknowledgement is the diplomatic course. Thus VPR mentioned his relief that of the 71 companies listed in WCU’s new spin-off companies report, two were from the social sciences.6 But he added:

…let’s be realistic. What research in the English department can produce a company? Versus someone discovering a new drug, or a new process, or a new car engine. I mean, let’s be realistic.

So although the campaign is said to promote research in general, it is hard to escape the suspicion that such campaigns consciously or unconsciously devalue contributions from the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, the social sciences occupy their traditional ambivalent position of “dominated dominant” (Bourdieu, 1992). It seems clear that those areas which deliver products (science and medicine) rather than ideas (arts, social sciences, and humanities) will continue to be favoured in this way, and will divert funding from other activities of a socially critical nature.

What About Teaching?

In the emphasis on research, teaching – and students-seem forgotten elements. Yet the public opinion poll conducted in July 1997 showed 65% of residents view teaching and research as equally important, while 26% place teaching ahead of research. There is a lot of lip service to teaching – especially undergraduate teaching – in NP’s public pronouncements. But the reality seems to be that in an era of escalating class sizes and tuition fees, and reduced course offerings and access to professors, students are paying more and getting less (Noble, 1997).

CC admits that concerns were expressed about downplaying teaching when the campaign was being planned.

The whole business of faculty morale was definitely brought up as a danger. I mean this could trigger a fair amount of resentment.

Presumably, one of the criteria we had for the slogan and the campaign was that it would be versatile enough to incorporate [those] concerns.

I haven’t heard any concerns . Now whether they’re simmering beneath the surface waiting to explode I don’t know.

In some jurisdictions, there is systemic discrimination against those committed to teaching, rather than research. (For example, the” new public management” performance criteria and “research assessment exercises” in Britain). Of course, the publish or perish mentality is traditional in research universities and arguments can be made that teaching is epiphenomenal to research. It can be argued also, as Veblen (1918) did, that” Higher Learning” and teaching are inimical. Veblen believed that research universities should be graduate schools with no taught component – a not unattractive idea. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the state pays WCU an enormous amount of money – about $300 million a year in block funding – to educate the province’s students. And in a sense, WCU is reneging on that contractual obligation by shifting resources away from teaching to research, its spin-offs, and pay-offs.

VPR says he’d entertain a discussion on the differentiation of roles at WCU. He believes, he says, that two professorial streams – teaching and research – could be accommodated.

I think it’s possible to have people go through the professorial ranks, right to full professor, and be evaluated entirely on their teaching skills and then others entirely on their research skills…That might be naïve, but I think the discussion needs to take place. I think there’s room for both and that both should be celebrated. But [pause] that’s a big shift.

Despite protestations to the contrary, and at the risk of overstating the case, I suggest teaching is undervalued at WCU. And I believe a line can be drawn from this to the campaign’s subtext. Research is an elite activity, teaching is not. Teaching is processing students through the classroom and into the general population. The general population is not smart enough to understand complex messages, so the campaign has to be” dumbed down” to something they can understand: a three-word slogan on a baseball cap.

Shouldn’t universities – our principal cultural assets – be striving to elevate the general level of discourse? Why are they stooping to sloganeering? CC says,” you have to make it appealing. You have grab them and shake them up a bit.” VPR adds” you can’t get people’s attention otherwise.” He lays the blame on technology. Computers, cell phones, and television have reduced people’s attention span and increased their appetite for instant gratification. He thinks the erosion is irreversible, and says” not all progress is progress.” Noble (1997) believes this élitist attitude finds its way into the commodification of instructional materials.

Quandaries of Commodification

The culture of commodification pervades WCU. The administration is strongly committed to strategic alliances, business-education partnerships, and industry-sponsored chairs and research.

A recent poll of the WCU community (n=800) showed majority support (78%) for strategic partnerships with business, seeing such arrangements as preferable to alternatives such as higher tuition and user fees, or reduced services. However, the campus community’s approval was hedged by strong concerns about restricting the involvement of business in teaching and research. The poll identified such restrictions as a trigger issue; that is, failure to address the concerns would” likely ignite strong opposition to strategic business partnerships.” Significant reserve was also expressed about the types of partners selected – the preference being for good corporate citizens.

Responses like these highlight the potential ethical dilemmas of accepting money from corporate sponsors – whether for the exclusive right to market products on campus, a funded chair, or the $30 million a year WCU derives from sponsored research. The pragmatic question is: how many strings are attached to such arrangements? Does sponsorship potentially compromise academic integrity? In other words, would sponsorship influence choice of research topics and questions? Or, more importantly, would a researcher pull her punches if her results reflected negatively on her funding sponsor? VPR’s first response of” absolutely not!” was modified somewhat on reflection.

The answer to that is [pause] I would hope not. The answer to that is [pause] you can’t control it. But the reality of it is…sponsorships are everywhere in society…The university isn’t protected from that and the question is should we be?

What I feel is [pause] we have certain protective things in place which guarantee that at least for the majority of the [sponsors], which is 99% of them, they won’t cheat. There are barriers against them cheating, and we can work in this sort of partnership and not feel compromised. But I won’t deny you can’t protect yourself from it completely.

VPR’s confidence is not justified by studies of the corporate influence on scientific research. For example, a 1997 study of potential conflicts of interest by Sheldon Krimsky and colleagues indicated that in one of every three scientific papers examined, at least one of the chief authors had a financial interest connected to the research. In April 1998, a study of research-related gifts by Campbell and colleagues showed that restrictions on gifts by donors created potential ethical conflicts for recipients. Restrictions include reviewing articles and reports prior to publication – with resultant delays, and expected ownership of patentable results – with attendant secrecy and in contravention of most universities’ intellectual property policies.

Anatomy of a Campaign

Having established the surrounding circumstances, and having attempted to place the campaign in a wider social and theoretical context, I will now turn to the details of the campaign itself: its structure, organisation, and format. As stated earlier, because this was a seed study it would be inappropriate to over-analyse or attach too much weight to the description that follows.

Original credit for the campaign belongs to VPR. VPR is a man committed to planning. When he took office in January 1996, he wanted a plan for what” WCU research means.” The research plan and the public awareness campaign evolved together. In preparation for the change in the presidency, he brought together communications staff-members to brainstorm ideas. Subsequently, one person was seconded from his regular post in public affairs to act as campaign co-ordinator; a public opinion poll7 was commissioned; an advertising/PR firm was contracted, at a cost of $10,000, to develop a concept and a soon-abandoned slogan; and a committee of 22 faculty was added to the core communications group.

After several months work, VPR took the idea to his academic colleagues.

I presented it to all the Deans at a special meeting and they, as expected, hearing it for the first time…said” what about me? I don’t see me in there. I don’t see my faculty in there.” Especially the Dean of Arts, the Dean of Law – I mean the social science and humanities Deans…but not a single Dean said “you can’t do this.”

VPR is aware that the campaign privileges the natural and applied sciences but he takes the silence of the non-science deans – or the absence of specific prohibition – as acquiescence. This is a recurring theme in VPR’s reading of his colleagues and I’ll return to it later. It indicates, I think, that moves towards commodification cannot be passively resisted. Nor can traditional collegial forms of governance be relied upon to reverse excesses. When powerful administrative hierarchies are committed to a corporate agenda, only active, specific, opposition is recognized or effective. Buchbinder (1993: 340) says that in” market-oriented” universities, traditional decision-making has been” replaced by a managerial hegemony in which the student and faculty groupings are marginalized and market strategies predominate.” He comments further on the striking fact that the professoriate appears unmoved by the enormous transformations taking place in the university, and surmises that apathy and submission must be inevitable outcomes of marginalisation (Buchbinder, 1996).

Launching the Campaign

The university community as a whole first became aware of the campaign at NP’s installation in September 1997 when, during a formal speech to an invited audience, the new president doffed her mortarboard and donned a campaign cap as the university choir broke into song. The title of both speech and song was the trademarked campaign slogan, selected according to the committee’s slogan criteria: it was” easy to say, durable, engaging, honest, direct, simple, versatile, and showed no bias.”8

Both CC and VPR are proud of the slogan and the commercial savvy they showed in registering it. The following exchange is illustrative:

VPR: We’ve trademarked it. We own it. The other company that owns it is the Bic pen company which is a bit unfortunate. They own it in the US but we beat them in Canada. So we can’t sell a single piece of merchandise in the US. [pause] Not that this is designed to sell anything [pause] but we are starting to sell some products in the bookstore.

CC: They have an exclamation mark at the end of theirs.

VPR: Oh is that what they have? We’d still be in trouble I guess.

CC: We’ll get a partnership with them; we’ll get an education partnership (laughs).

VPR: That’s right. So we’ll only be able to use Bic pens. (Both laugh).

There is no irony in the reference to education partnerships. The remark reflects the growing pervasiveness of exclusive arrangements with commercial sponsors. At WCU, for example, the administration actively pursues such partnerships and has concluded exclusive arrangements with, among others, a major soft-drinks company and an airline.

The official launch took place two weeks after the installation, when NP conferred honorary degrees on eight diaper-clad infant volunteers in a psychology research program. The University chancellor tapped the infants on the head with a campaign baseball cap. The Board of Governors attended the event and the Chair of the Board expressed unanimous support for the campaign. Immediately after, the campaign’s three-word slogan appeared everywhere on campus: on banners, in the bookstore, and on the university’s publications – all according to plan.

Campaign Planning

The plan – prefaced with the usual amounts of corpspeak like” margin of excellence,” “excellence and innovation,”” research mission,” and” research vision” – outlined a campaign that would be launched as a” grassroots initiative,” followed by a mainstream media campaign in early 1998.

Soft launch tactics included dressing NP, VPR, and other senior scholars and administrators in campaign T-shirts, while they bagged books at the campus bookstore and distributed campaign bookmarks. Articles were planned in WCU’s house, alumni, and donor publications. Banners were to be placed around the campus and a series of brochures would be produced. As the first event, the” baby PhDs” were expected to garner favourable coverage in the print and electronic media (who can resist babies?) Media kits would be mailed to bureaucrats and elected officials in all four levels of government and ongoing publicity would be generated through various avenues. Paid advertising would include 3 X 30 second radio spots a week (weekly cost=$1,100) on a selected province-wide talk show, and a bus and transit-shelter campaign at $65,000.

Costs And Benefits

Both VPR and CC insist that the campaign budget is limited to $100,000. But this is only the hard costs, which anyway exclude the original $10,000 in conceptual work. The budget does not cover CC’s salary and benefits, the cost of replacing his position in public affairs, nor the time that VPR and his staff dedicate to the campaign. Nor, significantly, is there any attempt to quantify the real costs of involving 22 faculty members in six months of campaign development work (“It’s part of their job,” says VPR, referring to the traditional service function). Quite simply, there is no acknowledgement that opportunity costs are involved. And without such acknowledgement, there can be no meaningful cost/benefit calculation.

The benefit side of the equation is also problematic, since no one considered in advance the appropriateness of setting up milestones against which the campaign could be assessed. Certainly, the strategic plan specifies objectives, but not ones that can be measured in any meaningful way. How can one tell whether or not the following objectives have been achieved?

  1. To raise awareness of, and support for, WCU’s research.
  2. To reposition WCU as a vital and innovative contributor to social and economic health in the eyes of the public, corporations, and government.
  3. To put a human face on WCU research, highlight its diversity, illustrate linkages among research disciplines, and their relevance to societal concerns.
  4. To raise collegial spirit and pride among WCU students, faculty, alumni, and staff.

When questioned about measuring the campaign’s success, CC and VPR thought it might be worthwhile to repeat the public opinion poll at some point (first objective), which would address awareness but not support. As to the second objective, VPR and CC speculated about possible linkages between the campaign and future increases in granting council budgets.

VPR: How much credit should I take? If the government increases the councils’ budgets next year by a total of $200 million, should I say my $100,000 campaign investment triggered $200 million? That would be stretching it a bit, but you give me a percentage and I’ll take it. I’ll feel I contributed.

CC: In January last year the AUCC had that full page ad? “Breakthroughs don’t just happen”? With all those companies signing the back? Next month, what do we [Canadian research universities] get? Eight hundred million bucks!

VPR: Is it related? I gotta tell you, the politicians said it was related. It is related, but we can’t do the sums.

The third objective seems to defy measurement but the fourth might be amenable to internal polling. However, VPR couldn’t see the point since” I don’t know what questions we could ask them.” As mentioned earlier, to a significant degree, VPR’s measure of the internal success of the campaign is silence; silence is interpreted as approval. Witness the following:

I know we’re OK for at least the following reason. The launch had over 300 people there. I received one e-mail that was negative. One!…From a community of over 2,000 faculty and 25,000 students… It was a retired professor. And I think that’s important…Number one, they’re from a different time. But number two, and importantly, when I wrote him back I never heard from him again. He was content. So that’s a sign we’re on the right track.

Deriving such a conclusion appears to demonstrate almost wilful ignorance of social science research methods, or of the epistemological requirement to establish justification for one’s beliefs in order to pronounce them true. At best, VPR seems naive. At worst, disingenuous. Either way, his conclusion is unwarranted.

Audience And Messages

The concept of a target audience also seems misunderstood. The plan specifies no less than eleven key audiences, including: residents of the province; the WCU community; politicians and bureaucrats; corporate leaders; local schoolchildren and their parents; donors – past, current, and prospective; multicultural communities; the science and technology community; media executives and reporters; and the mysteriously named” international stakeholders.” Rather than targeted, this seems all over the map. The lack of PR finesse is almost endearing. One senses a bumbling sort of enthusiasm about the enterprise. On the other hand, people who don’t know what they are doing can be dangerous. Put in charge of selling the university, these people might actually do so.

Seven key messages are to be directed at the target audiences:

  • through education and research, universities are principal agents of innovation and change.
  • through education and research, universities provide people with adaptable skills to meet the changing requirements of the global economy and workforce.
  • WCU is one of North America’s major research universities, fostering the transfer and application of knowledge for the benefit of society.
  • WCU researchers actively participate in the intellectual, business, professional, social, and cultural life of the community.
  • WCU researchers undertake joint research programs with industry, government, and community organizations.
  • WCU faculty, students, and staff are proud of their research achievements.
  • WCU’s research and teaching excellence is dependent on continued support from all sectors of society.

There is no attempt to tailor these messages to specific audiences, with one exception. Politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders received the new report on WCU spin-off companies as soon as the ink was dry. This report isn’t really part of the campaign, but the UILO which produced it falls under the supervision of the VPR. They stamped the slogan on the cover and deployed the report strategically. Otherwise, there seems little or no understanding that in an era of market fragmentation, sophisticated techniques of audience differentiation are required (Turow, 1997) together with appropriate tailoring of content to format (Ericson et al., 1991).

The first three messages are unequivocally oriented to the market, while two of the remaining four specifically mention either business or industry. The university clearly seeks to reposition itself as an economic rather than social actor. In this, WCU is isomorphic with the rest of the institutional field. It is precisely this type of economic weighting that provokes Buchbinder and Rajagopal (1996: 287) to exclaim” Public sector institutions are at risk. The public university is at risk…our colleagues in universities have not recognized the coming peril.”

Concluding Remarks

While wary about drawing too many conclusions from a small pilot study, I have attempted in this paper to give some sense of the issues surrounding the commodification of university knowledge, and to illustrate that process through reference to one university’s public awareness campaign. As I suggested earlier, I see no indication that the university is safeguarding itself as a centre of critical enquiry. I am left with the troubling conclusion that the administration’s pursuit of commodification seems unreflective, uninformed, and dominated by the assumption that there is no alternative. The ideologies of business have been seized on rapaciously by university administrations worldwide.

Yet the ideology is being selectively interpreted and applied. Unlike their counterparts in other” knowledge industries,” university administrators have chosen to keep the fat, cut the muscle, and disempower the front line. This goes against the” best” wisdom of management gurus who argue that with new technologies and new forms of organising production, production workers need to be empowered and middle management eliminated (Boyett and Conn, 1990). If university administrators were really “on message,” they would be downsizing the management layer (themselves). Instead, it is the highly skilled production workers (the professoriate) that are being cut. The rhetoric is in place, but management’s actions seem largely self-serving and in the main go unchallenged. The lack of resistance from the professoriate is troubling and perplexing. It seems to me that the questions to be formulated about faculty attitudes to these changes would be as long and complex as the answers.

I can only gesture at the issues surrounding commodification here. Limitations of time and space preclude more detailed exploration, but such exploration is clearly needed. A more extensive study of commodification and research is planned. The larger study will attend to the power shift by which the economic has come to dominate the intellectual, and the hierarchies which valorise some spaces of knowledge production over others. Faculty involvement will be investigated, as will the ownership and control of intellectual property, products and services. As well, I will attempt to unpack university financial reports to determine the underlying costs of entrepreneurial and administrative activity (Nelson and McCoy, 1997). Meanwhile, the public awareness campaign was assessed in March 1998 when CC’s initial secondment came to an end. As far as I am aware, VPR has” kept him on” and the campaign is set to move into a second phase. I will reinterview both, and continue to track the campaign, as part of the larger study.


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1. Especially one that embraces such linguistic barbarisms as “visioning”.

2. None of my informants could define” research-intensive,” although the term crops up everywhere in administrative and campaign rhetoric. As a working definition, the Vice President, Research suggested that, in Canada, a research-intensive university would collect over $100 million a year in research funding.

3. Interestingly, Veblen (1918) contended that professional schools and vocational imperatives have no place in an institution dedicated to” the higher learning.”

4. Because the Noble article was an e-mail post, I am unable to supply page references. The article’s focus is the commodification of instruction by high-tech means, but Noble sets up this phenomenon as continuous with the commodification of research over the last twenty-five years.

5. However, figures for the last three years published by the institution’s university–industry liaison office seem to indicate state support for research is stable. The structure of the university’s published financial statements defies detailed analysis, so changes in the funding/ expenditures mix over time are difficult to trace. It is impossible to gauge the actual cost of administration, for example, since the majority of administrative salaries are buried in the category for academic salaries. Recently, Nelson and Coy (1997) called for reform in the measuring and reporting of performance by Canadian universities.

6. Which two companies originate in the” social sciences” is unclear. Closer examination of the report indicates that 45% of the companies are classified as” Life Sciences” 39% as “Physical Sciences,” with the balance as” Information Technology.” Faculties of origin of the 71 companies are: Science, 27; Medicine, 18; Applied Science, 15; Law, 3; Pharmaceutical Sciences, 1; Commerce, 1. Three of the projects qualified for support from SSHRC.

7. The telephone poll of 503 subjects was piggybacked onto a research firm’s July 1997 omnibus survey. It was not specific to WCU but sought public attitudes to university research in general. The main finding was that while residents in the province placed” a great deal of importance” on university research, relatively few (one-third) recalled specific research. Of this one-third, most recalled medical research. Most residents regarded teaching and research of equal importance, with the remainder of opinion favouring teaching. One in two residents expressed moderate interest in learning more about research.

8. Quotes and details on campaign organisation come from an internal document made available to me by CC.

Copyright 1998 Electronic Journal of Sociology