Grasping for External Support: Are We Selling Our Souls?


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Institutions of higher education increasingly are being scrutinized by a public that has become more critical of higher education as its trust in academic institutions has eroded (Cartwright, 1992). Such criticism can affect institutions' ability to obtain funding from the three possible sources: state governments, the federal government, and private sources, and--ultimately-- can threaten institutional missions (Yudof, 1992). Recent years have witnessed decreases in public funding to higher education, perhaps as a result of these changes in public attitudes. Such decreases have forced institutions to develop new strategies (Collins, 1993) for funding the activities necessary to carry out their missions.


Historically, institutions of higher education have been able to control their own destiny. Higher education has been held in high regard and has been free from much outside interference. However, the environment in which higher education institutions operate has changed significantly over the years, and outside influences have exerted more and more control over campus decisions at all levels. Possibly the greatest single change factor in higher education in the 20th century has been the increasing influence of external support, which began as "small endowments and government appropriations for agricultural experiment stations" (National Academy of Sciences, 1989, p. 1-3) and has grown into a multi-billion-dollar behemoth, threatening the academic enterprise as dependency upon external support grows (Bok, 1980; Yudof, 1992).

Threats Related to State Funding

While state funding generally is not thought to impose significant restrictions, set-asides focusing research in specific areas and other state political agendas can certainly have an influence on institutions competing for state funds. Bok (1980) and Yudof (1992) warned that all external funding, including state dollars, can distort institutional missions. Perhaps the greatest current threat is the decrease in state funding to higher education in recent years resulting from increasing competition for limited state funds from other public services (health, corrections, K-12 education) (Yudof, 1992), since state funds account for about one-third of total revenue for state-supported institutions. Furthermore, private institutions as well as public institutions are affected by the shift in state funding priorities since many such institutions receive assistance from state governments in the form of both student and institutional aid (Layzell & Lyddon, 1990).

Threats Involving Federal Funding

Bok (1980), Rosenzweig (1992), and Yudof (1992) all warned of potential dangers associated with excessive governmental influence over institutions of higher education, which influence is made possible by increasing assistance. The federal government began providing greater and greater amounts of funding to institutions of higher education in the United States beginning in the middle of this century, first for research and later for student aid and other activities (National Academy of Sciences, 1964), and the academic love affair with federal funding began. Perhaps one reason for the positive relationship between academia and the federal government is the apparent match of missions (both serve the public interest) and the government's ability to provide funding that meets the following requirements of scientists:

The partnership worked so well that federal research funding to universities has grown from a total of $322 million in 1956 to $10.5 billion in 1997 (NSF, 1996a). However, these federal funds did not come without restrictions; "as government support . . . grew, government regulations affecting universities and research proliferated" (Streharsky, 1991, p. 42). While initial government regulations were primarily directed toward fiscal affairs--ensuring appropriate use of federal funds (National Academy of Sciences, 1964), recent regulations, laws, and investigations have begun to affect scientific matters (Gavaghan, 1994; Anderson, 1993).

Despite the increasing restrictions, the academic love affair with federal funding continues. But as competition for declining federal dollars has increased, rejection rates for research grant applications have also risen (Karr & Kelley, 1996), and researchers have begun scrambling for alternate sources of funding.

Threats Involving Private Funding

With apparent decreases in both federal and state funding and the picture not looking any better for the immediate future, institutions of higher education have turned increasingly to private sources for funding (Yudof, 1992), and competition is fierce for "scarce dollars" (Cisneros, 1992, p. 168).

Perhaps because of the generally short-term nature and limited amounts of industry funding for academic research projects (Blumenthal, et al., 1996), university researchers historically have looked askance at industry funding (Bogler, 1990), which has generally been considered to be less prestigious than federal or foundation funding. Furthermore, the typical industry requierments for "restrictions on the transfer of knowledge to colleagues is a cost which most researchers consider important" (Bogler, 1990, p. 23). Many of the concerns related to industry collaboration may result chiefly from the differing missions of academia and industry (Karr & Kelley, 1996, Streharsky, 1991). Some of the issues are: the potential for conflict of interest (Bourke, 1989; Geiger, 1990); limits to freedom and diversity (Bok, 1980; Minsky & Noble, 1989); restrictions on publication (Anderson, 1993; Blumenthal, 1996; Karr & Kelley, 1996; Larsen, 1994 ; Paris, 1996); other restrictions (including limits on research with other external partners) (Larsen, 1994; Packham, 1992); secrecy issues (Bogler, 1990; National Academy of Sciences, 1989; Streharsky, 1991; Wadman, 1996); conflicting policies regarding data ownership (Council on Governmental Relations, 1996); and patent rights (National Academy of Sciences, 1989).

However, despite this historical reluctance of faculty members to enter into funding relationships with industry and despite the growing concerns related to such relationships, many faculty members are now willing to consider any potential source of funding for their research. Bogler (1989) found that due to "survival problems . . . both researchers who are highly dependent on external sources, and those who are not highly dependent on external funding, do not tend to consider non-monetary factors" (p. 22) when considering external funding relationships.

Furthermore, it is not only researchers who are subject to enticements; institutional officials who approve contracts may be lured--or coerced--into approving deals that are not in the institution's best interest. Anderson (1993) reported on an NIH survey of 375 research deals in 100 institutions. Of the respondents, "22% allow the industrial partner to delay research publications by more than 60 days" (p. 27). Interestingly, such deals may be self-defeating. Scientists may be tempted to compromise publication rights in order to obtain funds needed for cutting edge research and in so doing give up the right to share the results with the public and reap the associated rewards. As Jasanoff (1993) stated, "Prizes go to the first to publish a brilliant and unexpected finding. Science, as if often noted, is a winner-take-all game, with no glory or comfort for the also-ran" (p. S95). Institutions, too, may be tempted to compromise on a deal with an industry partner in order to meet a deadline or sell institutional technology; but in doing so, they may give up rights to future technology that could be of even greater value.

Possible Defenses

Despite the potential threats associated with external funding, institutions of higher education are likely to continue to rely on such funding since the only alternative is raising tuition rates to unacceptably high levels. Higher education has always risen to the challenges it faced and is already beginning to develop creative solutions to the current one. Cisneros (1992) reported that "public institutions are now playing the development game with the kind of energy displayed by only the most elite of private institutions in the past" (p. 168). Even community colleges are focusing on development activities (Collins, 1993).

Other solutions include increasing interdisciplinary research activities to enhance creativity and attract outside funding (Karr & Kelley, 1996); focusing on development activities (Lederman, 1998) to bring in additional--unrestricted--funding from the private sector; and working out cost- sharing (Oberdorfer, 1990) or facilities sharing (Lederman, 1998) agreements.

While collaboration with industry must be handled carefully so as not to compromise institutional values, "a carefully constructed partnership between a university and the business sector can be mutually beneficial and lucrative" (Karr & Kelley, p. 40). University-industry collaboration may enable both entities to receive funding that neither would be able to obtain otherwise (Stombler, 1989); and, "often, industrial concerns are weakest where universities are strongest: at cutting-edge research" (p. 21). Advantages of collaboration with industry are many: "the stimulus of different problems, and different perspectives, access to otherwise inaccessible research environments, . . . And of course resources & cash" (Packham, 1992, p. 5); technology transfer (Laubach, 1996); increased opportunities for students to have diverse experiences (Oberdorfer, Williams & Smelser, 1990); opportunities to meet mutual needs (Streharsky, 1991); and increased opportunities for access to federal research support (Stombler, 1989).

A good example of a creative and positive partnership with industry is the collaboration between San Jose State University and a local geological consulting firm. The university used proceeds from the California state lottery to cover part of the costs of a ground-water monitoring system, and the project provided practical experience for students in hydrogeology (Oberdorfer, Williams, & Smelser, 1990). The National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (1994) reported that other partnering agreements, also, have been productive: Iowa State University's Center for Industrial Research, Colorado State's Manufacturing Excellence Center, University of Maryland's Technology Extension Service, North Carolina State's Industrial Extension Service, and Penn State's Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program. In all of these programs, institutions work with small to mid-sized companies to solve industrial problems. Community colleges, whose mission statements are closely tied to their communities and local industrial partners, are staying on top of this game, as well. Collins, et al. (1993) reported that 77.8 percent of community colleges responding to a study are "forging additional partnerships with business and industry" (page 13) and ranked that strategy as first in a list of possibilities for obtaining additional funding for the institution.

Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government has been a prime supporter of university- industry collaboration. Beginning in the late 1960s, when competition increased for federal funds, the federal government began to encourage university-industry collaborations through special funding mechanisms (Streharsky, 1991). Furthermore, university-industrial partnerships have resulted from technology transfer (Streharsky, 1991) made possible by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which enabled "universities to retain title to inventions resulting from federally funded research and licence (sic) the inventions to industry for development" (Gavaghan, 1994, p. 430).


At least for the foreseeable future, increases in public funding for higher education do not appear likely. Nor is it likely that institutions will see a decrease in competition for the limited funds available from all sources. Therefore, institutions must become more deliberate and creative in their efforts to attain or maintain adequate funding for the activities necessary to support the institutional mission.

Institutions give up a certain degree of autonomy when they accept external funding, whether it be state, federal, or private; however, some external monies come with more restrictions than others. Despite increasing dependency upon federal funds, institutions of higher education have managed to retain primary control over their scientific endeavors. However, collaboration with industry may prove to be more challenging due to the conflicting missions of academia and industry. But it is possible to develop industrial relationships that are mutually beneficial and that not only do not compromise instituional values but also serve to enhance institutions' ability to meet academic goals.

However, the more dependent institutions become on external funding--from any given source, the more control they give up. So, if institutions of higher education are to control their own destiny in fulling their missions, they must not let dependency upon external funds from any source cloud their vision.

There must be in society at least one agency which has substantial freedom to pursue knowledge in an exploratory way without concern for the immediate results, without knowing what the results may be, and with only the confidence that knowledge is good for its own sake and often has manifold unforseen consequences (Bowen, 1971, p. 27).

Institutions must become more proactive in assisting faculty in locating sources for research funding and developing creative options that match the institutional mission so that neither the faculty nor institutional officials will be tempted to compromise institutional values for the proverbial "thirty pieces of silver."


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