Exploring the Limits of Corporate-Academic Partnerships

Ryan Korstange


In the current landscape of higher education, partnerships between various educational institutions and corporations are proliferating.[1] A few examples of corporate partnerships will serve to illustrate how commonplace this phenomenon has become. Northrup Grumman has funded a cybersecurity program at the University of Maryland, and, in this program, Northrup Grumman plays a primary role in curriculum design.[2] IBM has partnered with the Ohio State University to train employees in data analytics. As in the Northrup Grumman-University of Maryland partnership, IBM has influence over the direction of the curriculum at Ohio State.[3] Furthermore, many similar corporate-academic partnerships have been established at community colleges.[4] Several four-year private institutions of higher education use these corporate partnerships extensively. For example, Strayer University has tuition reduction deals with over 250 corporations. Strayer contends that these partnerships benefit students through cheaper tuition and “targeted training.”[5]

These corporate-academic partnerships make sense and have some obvious and significant benefits for students, universities, and the corporations themselves. Students gain useful skills—often getting reduced or free tuition in the process, for many employers send their employees for education at universities where they have partnerships. In addition, because these programs are designed with corporate interests in mind, the students gain easy and often immediate access to jobs upon graduation. Universities gain students, that is, bodies in the seats, and the tuition dollars that come from their attendance. This benefit must not be underestimated, particularly in the current culture of reduced state and federal funding for higher education.[6] The corporations gain a workforce skilled in the essential tasks required for their industries, and, as a result, increase their productivity and profitability. There is, therefore, much to commend about this type of educational partnership.

However, corporate-academic partnerships are not without problems. Assessing them becomes easier within the context of the ongoing discussion of the purpose of education—a topic which has been discussed by many scholars, including Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, and Mortimer Adler.[7] Education does not have one singular purpose; rather, it accomplishes several goals. Adler’s thoughts are representative of some commonly stated ideas about the multiple purposes of education. In The Paidea Proposal, Adler suggests that education has three functions: 1) development of citizenship, 2) personal growth, and 3) occupational preparation.[8]

The question then is this: to what extent do these corporate-academic partnerships contribute to or detract from the various purposes of education? There can be no question that these partnerships provide students with what Adler calls occupational preparation. Corporations have a vested interest in their own success, measured primarily by profitability, so these programs provide them with employees trained in the specific skills that success in their particular businesses requires. The students in these programs develop real job skills that are in demand, and this is no insignificant benefit.

Moreover, students who enroll in the programs that these educational partnerships create do develop personally. At the very least, students gain specific knowledge and skills suited to a particular industry and related to the functions of the educational institution.

However, when we consider the idea that education exists to foster the development of citizenship, some questions arise. Most importantly, we must ask this question: if the employer pays the educator, who will teach students to question their employer?

The examples of corporate-academic partnerships mentioned above all have in common the fact that the educational institutions allow the corporate sponsors to shape the academic curriculum. As it relates to citizenship (or corporate citizenship), these partnerships run the risk of normalizing a myopic view of social responsibility—privileging particular societal models, and providing students a narrow view of effective citizenship. These corporate-academic partnerships can easily become indicative of what Jacques Rancière calls “enforced stultification,”[9] and emblematic of what Paulo Freire calls the “banking model” of education,[10] which reinforces certain power structures.

David Greene makes a particularly relevant criticism of the corporatization of education in his book Unfit to Be a Slave. He says, “today, the corporations and financiers benefit from the ignorance and silence of the population. The less information and understanding people have, the more they can be misled and controlled.”[11] The current trend towards “job skills education” is, he contends, a prime example of this type of inadequate education that serves the interests of corporations and not of students. Greene argues, “the duty of an educator is to broaden the horizons of learning and challenge the limitations [students] face.”[12]

Partnerships between corporations and institutions of higher education are not going away. The economic realities of the current climate of higher education make these partnerships an economic necessity for many colleges and universities. However, educators have a responsibility to do more for their students than to assist them in developing competitive job skills. Education serves a broader purpose and, as it relates to corporate-academic partnerships, successful education must include helping students to develop the ability to evaluate the challenges faced by and the limitations of the very corporations that are determining the direction of their curriculum.

[1] For an overview of these partnerships, see C. Straumsheim, “Corporations Go to College,” Inside Higher Education, 2015 retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/06/03/improving-economy-brings-opportunities-corporate-partnerships-higher-education

[2] http://www.eng.umd.edu/html/news/news_story.php?id=7652 and http://www.umdrightnow.umd.edu/news/northrop-grumman-foundation-renews-commitment-umds-honors-college-cybersecurity-program-276m

[3] https://engineering.osu.edu/news/2014/05/ohio-state-among-select-schools-chosen-launch-curriculum-ibm-watson

[4] http://m.northshore.edu/news/story.jsp?id=573

[5] http://www.strayer.edu/admissions/corporate-partners

[6] A summary of state-by-state higher education cuts can be found here: http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-by-state-fact-sheets-higher-education-cuts-jeopardize-students-and-states-economic

[7] For an overview of these educational goals, see D. B. Tyack, “Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling,” in R. M. Jaeger (ed.), Complementary Methods for Research in Education (Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1988), 24-59.

[8] M. J. Adler, The Paidea Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1982).

[9] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 6-22.

[10] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman (New York: Continuum, 2000), 70-86.

[11] David Greene, Unfit to be a Slave: A Guide to Adult Education for Liberation (Boston MA: Sense Publishers, 2015), 71.

[12] Greene, Unfit to be a Slave, 53.

Moving from Performance to Authenticity:Reflections on Grading Students in the Real World

Julie Phillips, MD, MPH
Associate Professor, Sparrow-MSU Family Medicine Residency Program
Assistant Dean for Student Career and Professional Development
Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Most of my medical student teaching takes place during patient care. The student and I care for the patient together, and the patient is both the mission and the lesson. Students usually speak with and examine patients first, and often know patients best. Faculty evaluate medical students not only on their written exam performance, but also on their ability to recall medical knowledge quickly and apply it by developing specific patient care plans. Students are also expected to consistently demonstrate a positive attitude, compassion, and a willingness to work hard.

The high value placed on clinical performance is changing the structure of medical education. Students are being placed in clinical settings earlier, in the first and second years rather than in the later years of their education. As they compete for residency positions, clinical evaluations are critically important. Assessment of real-world performance is not unique to health education, but there are few other areas of higher education where it is emphasized so comprehensively or valued so highly.

There are good reasons for teaching and evaluating clinical performance. When immersed directly in patient care, students learn lessons that could never be captured in a classroom or simulation. In my office, students learn principles of preventive care by counseling patients to quit smoking—sometimes with success. Medical students learn how to spend long hours in the office or hospital and stay up all night when their patients need them. They also experience loss, grieving for suffering patients and families. Patient care teaches students the profound sense of responsibility that comes with making decisions that change the course of people’s lives.

However, the constant evaluation of medical students in clinical settings has a cost. There are few studies of grading in clinical care, but it is believed to be subject to bias and inherently unreliable. Supervising physicians have individual ways of evaluating students, so differences between teachers can be as important as differences between students in determining final grades. Because these assessments are informal, they are not always transparent; students might not be aware of the “real” grading criteria until they learn that they are doing poorly.

Clinical grades can also be driven by the personality of the student, rather than by skills. Certain personality characteristics, such as extraversion, correlate with greater success in clinical evaluations.1 Clinical assessment can also be impacted by students’ attractiveness, gender, race, or sexual orientation. For example, in one study, Asian-American and African-American medical students were rated lower in communication skills than Caucasian students.2

Finally, students who are always being evaluated on performance are always performing. Their decisions, perceptions, and actions have much less of an impact on patient care than mine do, but they are evaluated much more stringently, on a moment-to-moment basis, than I am. This endless performance can be soul-crushing, for it creates an environment in which they compete with their peers and cannot be vulnerable in front of their teachers. During one of the most stressful transitional periods of their lives, they have no immediate, non-judgmental sources of support by their side. This can create a deep sense of isolation, and this isolation likely contributes to the extremely high rates of depression experienced by medical students.

We, their teachers, know that students’ well-being is always more important than any grade. But because our students have learned to stay relentlessly “enthusiastic,” we might not know how they are doing emotionally. A few years ago, one of my students committed suicide. The event was devastating for the entire institution, but especially for those who surrounded her during the last weeks of her life. She had been in the midst of her psychiatry rotation, working side-by-side with psychiatrists, but had not asked for help.

It is also difficult for students to let their guard down and open their minds to learning, except for those moments when their evaluators—who are also their teachers—step out of the room. I often wish I could persuade my students to “take off the mask,” be their authentic selves, and simply enjoy the immersive process of clinical education. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to create a truly nurturing environment for medical students within the patient care context.

Clinical assessment is an essential part of medical education, and has clear benefits. Moving beyond the classroom and into “real-world” settings is essential for developing learners with practical skills, not only in medicine but also in all areas of higher education. However, assessing learners in the real world should be approached cautiously because it is subject to bias that creates a lack of fairness. In my opinion, although clinical assessment plays a crucial educational role, it should not outweigh exam or simulation performance in determining student grade

Students immersed in real-world assessment also need extra support because, for them, every day is a test. Although medical student distress has gained increased recognition, sources of emotional support for medical students remain inadequate, especially when students leave the lecture hall and begin the real work of patient care.

I am not aware of learning methods that both preserve real-world assessment and allow students to stop performing. It is possible that other disciplines have succeeded where medicine has not. If so, perhaps the medical profession could learn from alternative approaches to assessment already present in other academic fields



1.       Doherty EM, Nugent E. Personality factors and medical training: a review of the literature. Medical education. Feb 2011; 45(2): 132-140.

2.     Fernandez A, Wang F, Braveman M, Finkas LK, Hauer KE. Impact of student ethnicity and primary childhood language on communication skill assessment in a clinical performance examination. Journal of general internal medicine. Aug 2007; 22(8): 1155-1160.

Tuition Free Higher Education

On Tuition-Free Higher Education

Eric Bain-Selbo, Department Head of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University and Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education

Politicians across the political spectrum are grappling with the public outcry over skyrocketing tuition increases at American colleges and universities—especially our public institutions. In the current presidential election cycle, the most substantive proposals have come from the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton has offered a proposal for debt-free higher education, insisting that students should work at least a certain number of hours per week to pay for their education. Bernie Sanders has offered a proposal for tuition-free higher education, insisting that a tax on Wall Street speculation could be used to cover tuition for all students.

The immediate reaction of most educators will probably be to support one or both of these Democratic proposals. As educators, we know the challenges that our students face in working 40 hours a week or more to pay for their tuition, the anxiety they have in facing tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and how these economic realities impinge on their ability to get the most out of their educational experiences. However, once you dig a little deeper into the issue, you find that there is a lot more complexity to it. You also find that the kinds of conversations we need to be having about these issues simply are not taking place in our public discourse.

At this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Dr. D. Gregory Sapp (Stetson University and SVHE Board Member) and I facilitated a special seminar session. This session was the third in as many years, and focused on the question of tuition-free higher education. The participants included faculty from a wide range of disciplines and from colleges as well as universities. Participants were asked to read a selection of articles on the various issues involved before participating in the session:






In addition, when participants entered the room, they were given the following set of questions to consider before the discussion started:

Questions of Benefit

  • Is there moral value in providing a tuition-free college education to all qualified citizens of the United States? If so, what is that value?
  • Should everyone have a liberal arts education? Why or why not? Are there ways of imagining such an education other than the traditional four-year college experience?
  • What public goods are served by making a college education available and accessible to all citizens?

Questions of Challenge

  • Is there a public benefit of tuition-free higher education such that everyone should be expected to support this program with tax dollars even if he or she will not receive a direct benefit from the program?
  • Should all students at public institutions receive a liberal arts education, or should we provide vocational or pre-professional education to those who are not capable of a completing a liberal arts program or who choose otherwise?
  • Would tuition-free higher education necessitate a new system of categorization or ranking of high school students to determine which ones could go to which colleges and universities?
  • How would the implementation of tuition-free public higher education affect private higher education?
  • Is our current model of public primary and secondary education an appropriate model for what tuition-free higher education would look like? If not, why not, and if so, what can we learn from our current system of public education?
  • Given the current inequities in our public primary and secondary education systems, would it be better to focus on strengthening those systems before attempting to implement tuition-free higher education for all? If we do not address current public school inequities, will we really benefit from providing tuition-free higher education?
  • Is it possible that tuition-free higher education would exacerbate existing economic inequalities in the United States? Might it actually work against the value of equity?

Although the conversation was wide-ranging, there were certain common concerns and reactions that emerged:

  • Concerns about who is “qualified” for college and what “qualified” even means: Even if the public is willing to pay for everyone to go to college, should everyone go to college? Are some students just not qualified to attend college? And what does “qualified” mean here, especially given the disparity in quality in our K-12 educational systems?
  • Concerns that free tuition would be a benefit primarily for people higher on the socio-economic ladder: Statistics show a huge disparity in college diplomas between people in the upper income brackets and those in lower income brackets. Tuition-free higher education then would be an entitlement mainly for those who already have the income to pay for higher education. If nothing else, there was a strong desire—at minimum—to use a means-testing process in order to provide help to those students who most need it.
  • Concerns that tuition-free higher education would exacerbate wealth inequality in the United States: Given the disparity in college achievement already, would not tuition-free higher education simply exacerbate wealth inequality in the country? Certainly we can imagine a larger number of working poor and poor students attending college, but how much larger is unclear.
  • Desire to increase affordable access to higher education, including alleviating the student debt crisis: There was a widespread consensus that our country needs to increase affordable access to higher education. Many of the participants recounted stories of students who could not attend college because of cost or students who worked so much during the week that they could not take advantage of the educational opportunities for which they were working. There also seemed to be a consensus that saddling students with excessive debt was unethical.
  • Desire to increase the proportion of the population that would benefit from a liberal arts education: The AAC&U meeting always includes a number of talks championing the value of a liberal arts education. If we are convinced of that value, then, should not everyone have a liberal arts education? In other words, should some form of liberal arts education be universal? If so, does that mean that we then would require it—especially in the context of a four-year degree? One participant suggested that maybe there could be a required post-secondary year or two for students to enrich their lives with a liberal arts education. The group reached no conclusion on these questions, but clearly there is a tension between the value we place on a liberal arts education and how we deliver (or even require) it for the general population.
  • Are we having the wrong conversation? Given the terrible disparities we have between K-12 school systems, many people felt that we needed to devote more of our energy and resources toward improving all those systems. The goal then would be to provide all students with the kind of K-12 education that will prepare them for baccalaureate work. There remained the desire to address college affordability and access, but clearly we need to do more as a nation to provide a better education for all students from age 4 to 24.

As we discovered in previous years, participants in these SVHE seminars love to explore the moral values intrinsic to the work of higher education. We do not expect to come up with the answers to these difficult problems. Nevertheless, by providing a venue for conversation about the possible impacts of tuition-free higher education and higher education’s relationship with K-12 education, SVHE is providing a valuable service to educators.


Introducing FEVER

FEVER—the Forum for Engaging Values, Education, and Responsibility—is a new online publication of The Society for Values in Higher Education. This is a peer-reviewed monthly publication that provides a forum for debating values issues that impact higher education in the United States.

SVHE is a group of educators and others committed to fostering lively debate about, and taking action on our campuses and in our communities in response to, values issues that affect the work of the academy.


1) Submissions of 500-1000 words about a challenging issue within, or impinging upon, higher education are welcome in any of the following formats:

a short position paper

a short video

a debate-format piece in which two Society members articulate opposing viewpoints.

2) Submissions should address a values issue in a rich and complex way that enables readers to better articulate their own views.

3) Submissions should be framed in a way that fosters discussion and debate.

4) Submissions can acknowledge the political impact of a values issue, but they should not explicitly endorse the political views of any one political party or political candidate.


  • Submissions will be reviewed by two members of the FEVER editorial board.
  • Notification of acceptance, revise and resubmit, or rejection will be sent via email within 1 month of submission.
  • An author will have 1 month to revise his/her submission.
  • Accepted submissions will appear at the rate of 1 per month on the FEVER website.

What are some topics that a FEVER contribution might address?

* the economic and emotional complexities of the exploitation of the adjunct workforce

* the place of the humanities on the campuses of newer academic institutions

* the role of institutions of higher education in relation to the children of immigrants

* the place of faith-based student groups at institutions of higher education

Any questions about this publication can be sent to Fiona Tolhurst at ftolhurst@gmail.com. Submissions to FEVER should be sent to the same address as email attachments.