Academic Capitalism, Conceptual Issues

  • Sheila SlaughterEmail author
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Academic Capitalism Sheila Slaughter Irradiated Milk University-industry Partnerships Interstitial Organization 
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A number of theories speak to the increasing alignment between science and engineering, universities, and the economy. Among the more prominent are the triple helix (Etzkowitz et al. 1998), Mode 2 (Gibbons et al. 1994), and entrepreneurial universities (Clark 1998). The triple helix (science, government, industry) is in many cases a descriptive, win–win narrative that celebrates the decontextualized emergence of university-industry partnerships that are assumed to be engines of economic development and prosperity. Universities win because they claim intellectual property that leads to income for research; industries win because they gain access to the scientific and technological creativity of university-based discoveries. However, the theory leaves universities as institutions relatively unexamined beyond technology transfer activities. Nor is government analyzed, other than in its provision of funds for research, while industry is usually focused upon in its capacity as partner with science, and not as located in specific political economies. The process of knowledge transfer is much more complex than the triple helix suggests, and the results, in terms of economic innovation, are far from clear, while university generation of income from research in both the EU and US has been quite limited (Geuna and Muscio 2009; Powers 2003).

Mode 2 (Gibbons et al. 1994) analyzes the consequences of a shift from science controlled by disciplines and professional associations and embedded in universities to global entrepreneurial science driven by industrial demand, resulting in a sort of just-in-time science that deploys teams of scientists and engineers on projects around the world and disbands them on completion. Despite Mode 2’s many analytic contributions, this theory underestimates the strength of universities as institutions. Research universities – at least their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields – continue to flourish. Similarly, Mode 2 underestimates the role of the state and nonprofit sectors. Although the state has fallen into disfavor under neoliberalism, it nonetheless continues to fund university education, faculty, and graduate student positions, as well as research at increasing rates, while the nonprofit sector plays an important part in intermediating the relations between state, science, and industry, often through policy narratives and discourse, channeling public funds toward the economy, both directly and indirectly (Ball 2012).

A scholar often cited in European higher education literature is Burton Clark (1998), whose concept of the enterprise university has been widely influential. Clark argued a turbulent environment with competing demands required that universities to strengthen their administrative core in to better engage in activities that increase new sources of revenue, decrease reliance on the state, and craft new missions that meet environmental demands. He made the case that some European universities became entrepreneurial by developing a stronger steering core, and a more active entrepreneurial periphery that reinvigorates the academic heartland, which consists of the traditional disciplines and professions. He assumed universities would be able to incorporate entrepreneurial activity and energy without harming academic values and faculty voice, if not governance. However, he provided little evidence that the academic heartland remained strong and faculty values and voice intact. The concept of entrepreneurial universities was based on a triangle of market, state, and higher education, but the separation among these sectors has diminished markedly, especially in the USA.

All of these concepts differ from the theory of academic capitalism because they tend to be based on institutional theory, do not attend clearly to power relations, and do not attend to the structural relations that draw together higher education, the state, and market sectors.

The Development of the Concept of Academic Capitalism

In 1997, Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie developed the concept of academic capitalism in Academic capitalism: Politics, policies and the entrepreneurial university (Johns Hopkins University Press), to better understand marketization of higher education in four English speaking countries: The United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In 2004, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades developed a theory of academic capitalism in Academic capitalism: Market, state, and higher education (Johns Hopkins University Press), a book that concentrated only on the United States, where marketization of higher education was progressing at warp speed. The theory of academic capitalism was further refined by Sheila Slaughter and Brendan Cantwell in 2012 in “Transatlantic moves to the market: Academic capitalism in the US & EU.” Higher Education. 63, 5: 583–606. Several edited books also treat academic capitalism: Brendan Cantwell and Ilkka Kauppinen, (Eds.) 2014. Academic capitalism in the age of globalization (Johns Hopkins University Press), and Sheila Slaughter and Barrett J. Taylor (Eds). 2016. Higher education, Stratification, and workforce development: Competitive advantage in Europe, the US, and Canada. (Springer International Publishing). Academic capitalism is highly cited, both within the field of higher education and in many other fields, and the books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish.

In their book of 1997, Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie used the concept of academic capitalism largely to focus on professorial behavior by examining national policy and the changing work of individual professors. The theories Slaughter and Leslie drew upon to explore the concept were Keynesian economics, globalization, resource dependency theory, and critical professionalization theories. In the 2004 book, Academic capitalism: Market, state and higher education, Slaughter and Rhoades thought the phenomenon of academic capitalism was developing so rapidly that theory construction was warrented. They expanded the concept by focusing on organizations as well as individuals and created a theory which conceptualized mechanisms that encouraged and explained the movement of higher education toward the market. The theory of academic capitalism saw groups of actors – faculty, students, administrators, and academic professionals – as using a variety of state resources to create mechanisms such as new circuits of knowledge that linked higher education institutions to the knowledge industries and organizations of the neoliberal economy. These actors also used state resources to trigger mechanisms such as interstitial organizations to bring the corporate sector inside the university to participate in the generation of profit. These interstitial organizations were supported by new networks of actors in intermediating organizations that drew private and public sectors closer together. These market and market-like efforts within universities called for expanded managerial capacity to supervise new flows of external resources, investment in research infrastructure for the new economy, and investment in infrastructure to market institutions, products, and services to students. Expanded managerial capacity was also directed toward restructuring faculty work so as to lower instructional costs (although not costs generally).

The term academic capitalism has stimulated significant debate, though its proponents considered that it was the best option to capture changes in the ethos of the academic profession, in part because alternatives – academic entrepreneurism or entrepreneurial activity – seemed to be euphemisms for academic capitalism, euphemisms that failed to capture fully the encroachment of the profit motive into academe. Of course, the word capitalism connotes private ownership of the factors of production – land, labor, and capital – and considering employees of public research universities to be capitalists at first glance seemed a blatant contradiction. However, capitalism also is defined as an economic system in which allocation decisions are driven by market forces. The authors play on words was purposeful. By using academic capitalism as the central concept, they defined the reality of the nascent environment of public research universities, an environment full of contradictions, in which faculty and professional staff expended their human capital stocks increasingly in competitive situations. In these situations, university employees were simultaneously employed by the public sector and are increasingly autonomous from it. They were academics who acted as capitalists from within the public sector: they were state-subsidized entrepreneurs.

Although faculty and administrators at research intensive universities may be state subsidized entrepreneurs, their position in many ways was analogous to that of industrial researchers and entrepreneurs in primary sector industries (large, oligopolistic industries that produce critical goods and services and employ large numbers of persons, many of whom are unionized and receive a social benefits package as part of their wages and salaries [O’Connor 1973; Braverman 1975]). Many of these industries – for example, aerospace, computers, electronics, and nuclear industries, as well as pharmaceutical, chemical and agriculture industries – were cushioned from the market by state support from a variety of federal agencies, for example, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health. These industries were supported by the federal government because they were perceived to be critical to a number of national missions – primarily defense, food supply, and health. So important were these missions that the industries contributing to them were partially subsidized by the state rather than left to the vagaries of the market. Many of the science-based products and processes produced by these industries relied on the same technologies for which academic capitalists in universities received public and private support. In other words, academic capitalists were subsidized primarily from the same sources and for many of the same reasons as industrial capitalists. The market, the state, and the academy (public universities are, of course, technically arms of the several states) are related in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.

Another way to approach the idea of academic capitalism is through the widely accepted notion of human capital: knowledge and skills possessed by workers that contribute to economic growth. Conceptually, these worker capabilities make their contribution by adding to the quality of labor, which of course is one of the three factors of production, land, and capital being the other two. Universities are the repositories of much of the most scarce and valuable human capital that nations possess, capital that is valuable because it is essential to the development of the high technology and technoscience necessary for competing successfully in the global economy. The human capital possessed by universities, of course, is vested in their academic staffs. Thus, the specific commodity is academic capital, which is no more than the particular human capital possessed by academics. This final step in the logic is to say that when faculty implement their academic capital through engagement in production, they are engaging in academic capitalism. Their scarce and specialized knowledge and skills are being applied to productive work that yields a benefit to the individual academic, to the public university they serve, to the corporations they work with, and to the larger society. It is indeed academic capitalism that is involved, both technically and practically.

Academic capitalism deals with market and market-like behaviors on the part of universities and faculty. Market-like behaviors refer to institutional and faculty competition for monies, whether these are from external grants and contracts, endowment funds, university-industry partnerships, or institutional investment in professors’ spin-off companies, or student tuition and fees. What makes these activities market-like is that they involve competition for funds from external resource providers. If institutions and faculty are not successful, there is no bureaucratic recourse; they do without. In contrast to market-like behaviors, market behaviors refer to for-profit activity on the part of institutions, activity such as patenting, and subsequent royalty and licensing agreements, spin-off companies, arms-length-corporations (corporations that are related to universities in terms of personnel and goals, but are chartered legally as separate entities), and university-industry partnerships, when these have a profit component. Market activity also covers more mundane endeavors, such as the sale of products and services from educational endeavors (e.g., logos and sports paraphernalia), profit-sharing with food services and book-stores and the like.

When we talk about how higher education is restructured, we mean substantive organizational change and associated changes in internal resource allocations (reduction or closure of departments, expansion or creation of other departments, establishment of interdisciplinary units); substantive change in the division of academic labor with regard to research and teaching; the establishment of new organizational forms (such as arms-length companies and research parks); and the organization of new administrative structures or the stream-lining or re-design of old ones.


Overall, the theory of academic capitalism demonstrates colleges and universities are shifting from a public good knowledge/learning regime to an academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime. The public good knowledge regime was characterized by valuing knowledge as a public good to which the citizenry has claims. Mertonian norms, such as communalism, universality, the free flow of knowledge, and organized skepticism, were associated with the public good model. The public good knowledge/learning regime paid heed to academic freedom, which honored professors’ right to follow research where it led and gave professors rights to dispose of discoveries as they saw fit (Merton 1942). The cornerstone of the public good knowledge regime was basic science that led to the discovery of new knowledge within the academic disciplines, serendipitously leading to public benefits. Mertonian values are often associated with the Vannevar Bush model, in which basic science that pushes back the frontiers of knowledge was necessarily performed in universities (Bush 1945). The discoveries of basic science always preceded development, which occurred in federal laboratories and sometimes in corporations. It often involved building and testing costly prototypes. Application followed development and almost always took place in corporations. The public good model assumed a relatively strong separation between public and private sectors.

However, returning to the public good knowledge/learning regime would be problematic because it had an unacknowledged side. In the 1945–1980 period, much scientific and engineering research depended on Department of Defense funding for weapons of mass destruction. The first university-industry-government partnerships were with military contractors such as General Electric and Westinghouse who build nuclear reactors as part of the Atoms for Peace program. Much scientific and engineering research was classified, and the need for secrecy fueled movements like McCarthyism, which created an unfavorable climate for academic freedom.

The academic capitalism knowledge/learning regime values knowledge privatization and profit taking in which institutions, inventor faculty, and corporations have claims that come before those of the public. Public interest in science goods are subsumed in the increased growth expected from a strong knowledge economy. Rather than a single, nonexclusively licensed, widely distributed product – for example, vitamin D irradiated milk – serving the public good, the exclusive licensing of many products to private firms is presented as contributing to economic growth that benefits the whole society. Knowledge is construed as a private good, valued for creating streams of high-technology products that generate profit as they flow through global markets. Professors are obligated to disclose discoveries to their institutions, which have the authority to determine how knowledge shall be used. The cornerstones of the academic capitalism model are basic science for use and basic technology, models that make the case that science is embedded in commercial possibility (Stokes 1997; Branscomb 1997a, b). These models see little separation between science and commercial activity. Discovery is valued because it leads to high-technology products for a knowledge economy.

Academic capitalism also has an unacknowledged side. The benefits of economic growth do not always fall evenly on the population. Treating knowledge as a private good may make much of it inaccessible, perhaps constraining discovery and innovation. Conferring decision-making power on institutions rather than faculty may impinge upon academic freedom. Basic science for use and basic technology may provide narrow forms of discovery and education that do not sit well with concepts of public good. An academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime may undermine public support for higher education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Higher EducationThe University of GeorgiaAthensUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Pedro Nuno Teixeira
    • 1
  1. 1.Director CIPESMatosinhosPortugal