Thursday, July 12, 2007

Universities: How Much Should They Prostitute Themselves?

By Richard Vedder

Economists like me often think that "everyone has their price." If you pay me enough money, I will do almost anything. A principled person is one who has a very high price before she will sell her soul (or even body) for some cause. A pragmatist is someone who will alter his position cheaply.

All of this came to mind as I read in Inside Higher Ed about a little brouhaha at the University of Iowa School of Public Health. Some dude wanted to give $15 million to name the school the Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield School of Public Health. The faculty strenuously objected, as did the Dean, and the donor was told to keep his money. He was very, very annoyed.

I cheer the University of Iowa for its action. I think schools need to maintain independence from pressure groups, corporations, governments, and others who want to direct the way a school operates, and naming a school for a company or organization seemingly violates that independence.

Yet, I am troubled by my own view. For years, we have named professorships after individuals and occasionally businesses. We sell "naming rights" to buildings and especially sports facilities. And we don't seem to object if a school is named after an individual as opposed to a company. So, what is so different about the Blue Cross School of Public Health? And would the University of Iowa said "the hell with the faculty" if the gift had been for $50 million or $100 million? Where do you draw the line? Once you are a prostitute, does it matter whether the fee paid is $100 or $1 billion? Does it matter if you are renting yourself out to an individual or a company? On logical grounds, I find this a distinction of little real importance.


sciencedoc said...

Hey, isn't the idea to run the universities more like businesses? Isn't selling yourself to the highest bidder? Call it prostitution if you like, but don't blame them for doing what they're being told to do.

Saxon said...

Universities are not businesses because they have no owners and don't have a profit motive. As nonprofits, the service, originally, was oriented from the producer's perspective not the customer's as businesses are - do what we say because we know best. Nonprofits do what is right not what makes money. Sometimes, the two coincide and its wonderful but usually a choice must be made. Education is a public good with private benefits. As long as the public is benefitting, the costs to the taxpayer and/or the donors are justifiable. Because nonprofits belong to the sector that utilizes trust (see Fukuyama) they must be, like Calpurnia, above suspicion, i.e. no prostitution.