Robert Reich: economic inequality is starting to silence academic expression

Robert ReichThis week Robert Reich shared some recent stories about increasing economic inequality silencing expression in the non-profit world, including education.  These are useful anecdotes and reflections from a perceptive observer.

For example,

I had [an] exchange last year with the president of a small college who had invited me to give a lecture that his board of trustees would be attending. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t criticize Wall Street,” he said, explaining that several of the trustees were investment bankers…

“There’s really no choice,” a university dean told me. “We’ve got to go where the money is.”

Has anyone else experienced this?

There’s more:

A major university shapes research and courses around economic topics of interest to its biggest donors, notably avoiding any mention of the increasing power of large corporations and Wall Street on the economy.

I’ve run into this myself.  Last year I told my “not eating the bankers” story, and a very wealthy university’s development officer told me she was glad I hadn’t done anything bad to the young financiers.  “They would likely become great donors”, explained the officer.  She was smiling as she spoke, but not in a joshing way.

What do these anecdotes point to?

big money is …  buying off nonprofits that used to be sources of investigation, information, and social change, from criticizing big money.

Other sources of funding are drying up. Research grants are waning. Funds for social services of churches and community groups are growing scarce. Legislatures are cutting back university funding. Appropriations for public television, the arts, museums, and libraries are being slashed.

Reich outlines some few examples of donors directly influencing work, but what might be more important is strategic self-censorship:

Even though gift agreements by universities, museums, and other nonprofits often bar donors from being involved in decisions about what’s investigated or shown, such institutions don’t want to bite hands that feed them.

It becomes hard for outsiders to see the process when it’s quiet.

A Washington think-tank releases a study on inequality that fails to mention the role big corporations and Wall Street have played in weakening the nation’s labor and antitrust laws, presumably because the think tank doesn’t want to antagonize its corporate and Wall Street donors. [emphasis added]

Reich also reminds us that such influence isn’t necessarily political in the usual sense: “This isn’t a matter of ideology. Wealthy progressives can exert as much quiet influence over the agendas of nonprofits as wealthy conservatives.”

If Reich is right, and income inequality continues, we should expect to see such instances of academic content restriction rising.  How should academia respond?

(photo via Wikipedia)

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4 Responses to Robert Reich: economic inequality is starting to silence academic expression

  1. It’s interesting that you frame your question around a “response” from academia. Don’t the examples you share suggest something closer to complicity?

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  2. Joe Murphy says:

    You and Reich have quite logically framed this as a problem of money and power. That suggests an answer in money and power – either by increased “content-neutral” government appropriations, broader participation by small donors, or perhaps increased “activist” fundraising directed specifically at increased debate or the presentation of particular topics/viewpoints on campus. (I suspect this last is most feasible, and probably already happening – a trustee who balks at “the College” spending money on a speaker might give it a pass if he knows it’s really “Joe’s project” and for a small donation he could fund a counter-speaker.)

    We could also think of this as part of the campus “speech codes” debate. If we want our undergrads to engage (or at least tolerate) speakers who make them uncomfortable, we need our parents, alums, trustees, and politicians to lead by example!

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