Jason Owen-Smith warns of “serious risks” when universities cater to an industry

March 1, 2019

In his February 26, 2019 piece for The Conversation, “Amazon pullout from NYC shows the perils of partnerships between higher education and business,” Professor Jason Owen-Smith details the great sacrifices universities make not only to their student body, but to society as a whole, when they cater to a business’s desired skill set. From Amazon’s pullout of their planned New York headquarters to concerns around a Foxconn plant being built near the University of Wisconsin, Owen-Smith shows why higher education institutions should be wary of looming industry.

Owen-Smith, who studies the “nexus of business, science and academic research,” says that when industries announce potential partnerships with cities close to campuses, those universities often “rush to make sure Amazon—or any other company—has what it needs,” which then “run(s) the risk of damaging the very things that make them unique and valuable to their communities in the long term.” Owen-Smith explains that when universities get mixed up in the courtship of big business, they run the risk of “narrowing their work,” for example emphasizing STEM fields. “I think a narrow focus that closely aligns university work with near-term business needs is perilous,” writes Owen-Smith.

Not only does this endanger fields not currently favored by such businesses, but it’s short-sighted. Owen-Smith explains that “companies work on tight time horizons, and may change direction or just up and leave—as Amazon did in New York City,” going on to say that “the different agendas and concerns of higher education and business mean that when universities overcommit to the needs of a single partner, they may be left hanging,” pointing to a deal between University of California, Berkeley and Novartis in the 1990s that did not come to fruition. Owen-Smith ends the piece warning higher education that accommodating industry interests puts “their stability, credibility and...expertise they need in other fields on the line. Those (vulnerable fields) are the very things that make them good anchors for regional economies and communities.”

Since publication, the piece has been picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the full article here.

Jason Owen-Smith is a professor of sociology, as well as a public policy professor at the Ford School. Professor Owen-Smith is also the Barger Leader Institute Professor of Organizational Studies, a research professor in the Institute for Social Research at UM where he directs the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS).