Imagine a world where all research belonged to somebody, an academic world where across the disciplines distinguished professorships carried the name of their corporate sponsors, where university presses and scholarly journals depended for their support on commercial benefactors. This world is not too difficult to imagine, for the sciences already obtain much of their funding from industry, as they must do in the 21st century to engage in costly, technology-heavy research. The government cannot fund it all.
However, this trend is beginning to extend beyond the sciences and into fields where research is less costly and in which corporations may have vested interests in the intellectual work produced. For instance, according to the March 2000 Atlantic Monthly article titled The Kept University, West Virginia Universitys management school established a Kmart Chair whose holder must agree to spend a percentage of his or her time training assistant store managers.
What if research universities extended their expectations for external grant support from the sciences to the humanities and even to the arts? In an apocalyptic vision we might imagine a Dow Chemical Professor of History, a Disney Professor of Film or a Chiquita Banana Professor of Latin American Studies. Not only professorships are at stake, but also entire institutions. In our globalized society, we might imagine a Saudi Aramco Institute of Religion, a General Motors Literary Review or a General Electric Museum of Art.
These contrived examples are, of course, absurd. But they remind us of the reason we should value humanistic scholarship conducted without sponsorship. When I was invited to address the question of how the humanities could compete with the grant-driven sciences in the modern research university, I tried to figure out what kinds of grants my colleagues and I could win from the private sector to subsidize our scholarship. And thats how I fell into this nightmare fantasy. The very question presupposed that the model for support of big science in research universities also is appropriate for the humanities. In fact, it isnt always so.
These examples immediately make us ponder the kind of published research that would not be tolerated by financial backers. Would we be likely to gain an unbiased assessment of the influences of multinational corporations on Ecuador from the Chiquita Banana Professor of Latin American Studies? And of equal importance, would we be likely to have any confidence in such a professors research on Latin America, whatever the scholar might write?
This fantasy made me realize that the humanities should be understood not as competing with the sciences but rather as complementing them for the well-being of our society. The humanities are like the sciences in that they question, scrutinize and criticize accepted opinion, but they are unlike the sciences in that the object of scrutiny is not nature but rather culture. Criticism of widely held opinions in human culture is not always appreciated. In fact, it is not apt to find corporate sponsorship. Nobody pays for criticism.
Universities serve the best interests of society when they support, out of their own budgets, research in the humanities and the arts. For the same reason that American institutions of higher education adopted the principle of academic freedom and tenure to ensure that our society could hear the ideas of its most learned citizens, even if those ideas were unpopular research universities strengthen our democracy by preserving the freedom of scholars to pursue truth without constraints of any sort. And in so doing, universities preserve the confidence of the public in the research their scholars produce.
When evaluating the benefits of corporate largesse in the academic world, we should consider a potential contribution, in any discipline, not only from the viewpoint of a university in need of additional funding, but also from the viewpoint of society as a whole. In the sciences, a grant from a pharmaceutical company may benefit both the university financially and the world materially for the long term: It may facilitate a discovery that improves the health of the planets human population. But in the humanities, a similar grant may benefit only the university and then only for the short term. If it hampers the scholars pursuit of truth or if it damages the publics confidence in that pursuit, then it harms both the university and society in the long term.
When we think about why universities should support the humanities, we must think about the well-being of our world for the long term.