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.


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