The power to corrupt scholarship and teach inequity: the academic industrial complex

The opportunity of the academic industrial complex to influence scholarship is great. This post uses the Johns Hopkins Industrial Complex as a case study to highlight government and private interests’ support and control of this academic institution. The influence of public:private partnerships in growing power and corruption and corporations in monopolizing the principles and practices of the academy is described. Finally, organizing and educating of the larger university and local communities is necessary to transform academia into places of scholarship for collective justice and benefit for all.

The power to corrupt scholarship and teach inequity: the academic industrial complex

The growth of the academic industrial complex has been well documented over the past decades (1). As academic institutions gain and harness their power base through federal research dollars, tax credits for their non-profit status, relationships with corporations and foundations at home and abroad, and funders with deep government and corporate ties, transparency and accountability become less effective and their ability to corrupt scholarship grows. These institutions of higher education which have grown in power and prestige often become ‘untouchable’ by laws and regulations which those without power abide. This occurs because of the powerful relationships the academy has forged and nurtured with government, foundations, and other private corporations. The academy thus becomes a marketplace for corporate America and a research and development arm for military research, leveraging power over the population who pays it to learn from them, and power over the economy of the place and the people outside its immediate walls. A case study of the Johns Hopkins Industrial Complex is an example that offers deeper understanding of how this power can and does lead to corruption and in some ways a dictatorship of ideas and practices which propagate the ideology and practice of powerful corporations. This power dictates non-transparency and non-accountability and leads to non-democratic practices prone to injustice through unethical and disproportionate benefit to those with power and access to wealth. This understanding allows us to organize strategies to prevent the continued growth of power and corruption so as to assure a scholarship of equity and economic justice is possible for all.

Government financing builds power in the academic industrial complexes

The Johns Hopkins University and Medical Industrial Complex consistently receives generous support from the federal government in the form of grants which fund research and development of new ideas and practices. This funding allows continued growth of the institution with new people who require greater space-a continued need to geographically expand. Therefore federal support comes not only directly to pay salaries of existing researchers, attract new researchers, students, and staff, pay for equipment and overhead for research to be conducted, but pay for construction of new buildings in which research is conducted. Research dollars contribute to grow the ability of an institution to not only conduct existing research but to develop avenues of new research. The well-funded institutions gain an advantage over their less-funded peer-institutions who do not have similar levels of research dollars to attract researchers for development of new ideas and practices. The greater research dollars the greater ability to develop new ideas and establish oneself as the leader in research, education, and innovation in any or all fields of education. Scholarship at the highly funded institutions may go unchallenged because of their prestige in many new ideas and innovations. This leadership in scholarship is therefore leveraged to receive greater support from government and private interests, fueling the cycle of growth of power through close relationship with powerful partners of government and private funders.

Of the 896 universities that received federal dollars for research and development 20% went to only 10 universities who continue to receive the largest amount of federal dollars each year. (2) The Johns Hopkins University received twice as much as any university in 2011- $1.9 billion which was 5% of all federal funding that year. (2) Almost half of this came from the Department of Defense and NASA and evidenced the influence and connection of this academic industrial complex with the military industrial complex. (3) This continued disproportionate federal funding to JHU was evident in 2002 when it became the first university to receive $1 billion in federal funding, recording $1.14 billion in total research and $1.02 billion in federally sponsored research that year. (4) Federal financing also comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which granted Johns Hopkins University $220 million as of 2010. (5)

Other forms of government support come in the form of exemption from paying taxes due to the non-profit status as an educational institution. However this non-profit status is one worthy of further investigation as universities like Johns Hopkins harness their research and development outcomes into profit margins. (1) Through sale of educational and management tools in health, education, and research, and private gain for patented medical products, they become aligned more with businesses chasing profit motives. Meanwhile, the majority of research and development continues to be funded by the government. How is this disproportionate public subsidy to the Johns Hopkins Industrial Complex redistributed back to benefit the public instead of growing the wealth of this private institutions’ community and power to make decisions about how Baltimore and Maryland develops? While the equity in benefit to the public is unclear benefit to the institution is clear. In addition to examples mentioned previously, another example is seen in the salary of the current president. The current president ranked 16th in compensation out of 493 top executives at 490 private nonprofit colleges in 2010- earning $1.27 million. (6)

Support in universities’ structural expansion by government in the form of public subsidies for construction of buildings and government partnerships to acquire private land for the benefit of private expansion are other examples of government support of the growth of the academic industrial complex of Johns Hopkins. Two of the largest expansions of the university occurred in the 1950’s and 2000’s. In the 1950’s more than 50 acres of private land was acquired by the Baltimore city government and developed by and for the university. In the 2000’s and currently, another 88-acre expansion for a Johns Hopkins Bioscience Park was initiated through the government’s use of eminent domain to acquire private land for lease and sale to the university. Both expansion projects were supported by tax incentives and subsidies for development by the university. In the recent expansion, this leveraging of power and government subsidy enabled the continued gentrification of East Baltimore through a 7-acre park, a new school, and a private hotel, to be built on land previously inhabited by families who were forced to move through government intervention. (7)

In the late 1800‘s acquisition of property owned by the Baltimore city government and sold to the university at below-market rate prices resulted in the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the 1980’s sale of a city-owned hospital to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions at below market-rate price resulted in another capital expansion of this Academic Industrial complex- Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital. These two hospitals along with its recently acquired Howard Country Hospital ranked 3rd highest of the 17 Maryland hospital in 2013 in profit margin (East Baltimore, Bayview, Howard Country). (8) The access to land through partnerships with government built this powerful academic industrial complex and has facilitated its expansion over the century.

Influencing of and by the academic industrial complex

In the first quarter of 2013, Johns Hopkins University spent $160,000 on lobbying, ranking in the top eight amongst other universities that quarter. In 2012 it ranked 7th with $640,000 in lobbying fees and 19th in contribution of more than $507,000 to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups. (9)

Similar lobbying practices by other academic industrial complexes such as Harvard, MIT and others recently assured that the federal government continues to pay individually negotiated overhead costs to academic institutions. Their lobbying efforts stopped the current U.S. president’s attempt to cap the percent of federal funding overhead payments to universities, now almost 25% of the nation’s research budget. This came following an audit of 10 universities-including Johns Hopkins- by the Office of the Inspector General which documented that the “Federal Government was not receiving the lowest rate charged for indirect costs [overhead], although it was the largest volume purchaser of university research”. (10)

This pattern of influence on the federal financing processes by powerful academic institutions highlight their unrestricted ability to influence government with little measures to hold this inequitable process accountable. This power of influence on the federal government extends into the state and local governments in the Baltimore region. Members of the Johns Hopkins Industrial Complex use their power to direct how development occurs in the region it lives in through membership on development boards. (11) It’s recent promotion of itself as a leader in development of American cities evidences its power as an industrial complex to reach millions of consumers and affect how we design and develop our cities. Its power is reflected by its ability to declare itself an expert in development of American cities while denying its own racist and classist practices resulting in inequitable and non-sustainable development for the the local area in past and current development in an attempt to grow itself in greater power. How could such data be ignored? It can be when the academic industrial complex has such great power to affect media and shape public discourse even while it acts differently on the ground and ignore the voices advocating for wealth and health equity, within and outside its walls.(12)

Academic industrial complexes have the power to influence and corrupt its broad student population through its direct advertisement of corporate and foundation interests. With funders names emblazoned on markers, parking garages, buildings, and courtyards, students, faculty and staff become knowing and unknowing consumers of the power of corporations both nationally and internationally. This is exemplified in the ‘Bloomberg School of Public Health” named for the most wealthy benefactor to the institution, mayor of New York city, and alumni of Johns Hopkins who is the first benefactor to provide more than 1 billion in support of the institution. Researchers from the institution boast of going directly to New York city to convince Bloomberg to fund their new research projects. (13) Similarly the construction giant in Maryland, Whiting and Turner, has grown its wealth from building many Johns Hopkins structures (most recently additions to the School of Medicine, the new Henderson-Hopkins Community School and State laboratory in the Johns Hopkins Bioscience Park, expansions at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Decker Quad at the Homewood Campus) while funding construction of buildings and influencing scholarship through its leaderships’ namesake-Whiting School of Engineering, Hackerman Professorship in Civil Engineering.

In regard corporate America’s role in the academy, a Goldman Sach’s spokesperson had this to say about the president of Brown University on their board: “…[her] contribution to our board was deep and also wide-ranging…[she] brought invaluable perspective on leadership, people and decision-making, and her direct work with students was of great value to a firm that recruits hundreds of young people every year.” Another leadership academic at Washington State University stated this in regard her role on Nike’s board: “I know a little bit how students think, what might drive their desire to look into Nike products”. These relationships with corporations and government challenge the academic setting as one for liberal thought and exploration. This corruption of academic freedom is reflected in students, faculty, and staff who fear criticizing practices of the corporations on which the leadership of their institutions sit and corporation’s who sit on academic boards. For example when students from Johns Hopkins participated in organizing events challenging the role of East Baltimore Development Inc (the development proxy of the Johns Hopkins Bioscience Park whose board of directors includes two positions for Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions) leadership of the institution reminded them that they must speak independently and not as part of the institution, cautioned about more subtle ways to proceed, and required clearance beyond normal protocol -from additional Hopkins officials. These additional measures of scrutiny and oversight assures that generous benefactors and government partnerships continue to guard the academy’s scholarship while stifling student, faculty, and staff’s freedom of expression. This control of scholarship development was evidenced recently at Syracuse university when one of the chancellors cautioned faculty in regard working with local community affected by the academic complex’s plans for future expansion. Subsequently funding for several projects connected to this organizing effort abruptly ended. This direct power over careers, programs, and funding has substantial influence in controlling development of scholarship and research which can attempt to address injustices in all its forms. The practice of such injustices itself stifles a path of scholarship toward justice, in all forms. As noted by a current student at Johns Hopkins University, greater transparency of donors and their interests should be revealed. (14)

This direct effect of academic-corporation and academic-government partnerships influences the academia’s strategic plans, values, ethics, principles, practices, and scholarship not only through direct funding and marketing but through their membership on the governing boards of the academic complex (13). For example Bloomberg is granted head of the board of trustees for the Johns Hopkins University, a previous head of CIA enjoys board member privilege while Merck, Becton Dickinson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Citigroup, Inc, Boeing Company, Legg Mason, Walt Disney, and real estate, legal, and investment firms and developers participate in influencing the scholarship of the institution-58% of the hospital’s and 48% of the university’s current board of trustees represent corporations. The role of private endowments in influencing academia is another rubric in the fabric of the academy’s power as an industry determining scholarship and its influence on a sustainable economy. For example, the Johns Hopkins Institutions’ endowments ranked 26 out of 843 institutions receiving most endowment dollars in 2012-$2,593,316. (15)

Individually and collectively these partnerships signify the root of the ‘industrial complex’s’ power to corrupt academia and evidence the power to control the discourse, deconstruction, and reconstruction of social, political, and economic ideology and practices both within and outside each complex.

Oversight, equity, ethics

Though the industrial complex of academia receives substantial support from government, the lack of transparency assures little opportunity for public accountability. This results in little oversight to assure ethical behavior and equitable outcomes for the public. In the case of the Johns Hopkins Industrial Complex the university has been allowed to land bank and expand into communities’ of color and low income without restriction and opposition by local, state, and federal governments. Instead they are enabled through direct and indirect public subsidy-tax dollars with little representation- and little government oversight to adequately maintain property and inhibit a pattern of community disinvestment. The current abuse of eminent domain powers to acquire 88 acres of land to facilitate private expansion of the university without a comprehensive plan showing benefit for the community again witnesses large scale corruption. (16) This same development project awarded contracts to the major construction corporation in Maryland and prominent benefactor of Johns Hopkins University without evidence of competitive bidding. (17) Its labor practices also reflect the continued growth in inequity between low-wage employees and its leadership evidenced by the lack of a living wage to employees. (18) This behavior, consistent with corporations who pay their leadership incomes 50-fold greater than that of low-wage staff, is seldom reported in mainstream media. Instead such media choose to report the current university president’s promise to hire food companies who pay a living wage and buys local food even while sub-contractors in its own capital expansions neither pay a living wage or hire locally-past or current. (19)

The academic industrial complex’s lack of ethical behavior and oversight has a long and consistent history in research practices. Most recently in October 2013 an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC revealed that the Johns Hopkins Hospital consistently inhibited coal mining workers from receiving disability benefit for black lung disease. The prestige and power of this academic industrial complex allowed consistent reports of negative findings to go unchallenged by medical and legal officials and resulted in the coal mining industry neglecting claims for disability benefits to miners. The federal government has called for its own investigation.(20)

In 2012, the death of a Hopkins researcher occurred following a whistle-blower’s insistence that published research from the laboratory may not be consistent with actual research performed. While this whistle-blower was terminated, the institution and partners of the academy-editors of the journal in which the research was published- ignored such claims. There remains no public record as to the outcome of an investigation into such question of unethical research practices, if such an investigation occurred. (21)

In 2001, investigation of unethical research practices and lack of oversight by the institution resulted in a judgement by Maryland’s Court of Appeals comparing a lead-based paint study on children in East and West Baltimore to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study- conducted in 1932–1972 on African American men with syphilis who received no appropriate treatment . (22)

Also In 2001 Johns Hopkins Hospital’s unethical practices in scientific standards of research was revealed when researchers failed to acquire sufficient data about a known toxic chemical for a research study and failed to inform the participants of this available information. This resulted in the death of one participant, investigation by the Federal Office of Human Research Protection, and temporary suspension of all federally funded research. (23)

The most documented evidence of unethical research conducted at the institution involved non-consensual use of cancer cells from an African American woman in 1951. (23) Her cells were used without her knowledge, her consent, or her families consent after her death. After much public evidence, including a book detailing the evidence, the institution initiated a fund to recognize the family of Henrietta Lacks whose cells continue to be used in research around the world. (24)

These data suggest a pattern of ethical abuses of the academy’s privileged status in development and research protocol and practices with little oversight. The continued lack of transparency and accountability confirms the power of the institution to go unchallenged. Such powerful institutional capital assures institutional power provided through relationships with government and powerful private entities that allows generous benefit to the institution and diminished benefit to the public-fostering the growing gap in wealth and health inequality across the US. This relationship of support and influence by government and private entities which in turn creates a ‘progeny’ of themselves in the academic industrial complex assures corporatization, corruption, and co-optation of the academy resulting in public:private partnerships of un-rivaled power. Figure 1 In general such corporate power whether at local, national, or international levels result in “less healthy, more dangerous, less stable, more unequal, and less fair” societies”. (25)

Academic industrial complex: power to corrupt or power to assure justice for all

The strong connection between access to federal and private resources and growth in the academic industrial complex is compelling. This accumulated power is used to continue unequal access and growth in power and parallels the growth of capital for the top 10% of America witnessed by their possession of the majority of the wealth of the country. (26) The practical outcome of such power inequality is evidenced by their effect on controlling: freedom of speech and diverse scholarship in the academy, equal funding and support to all members of the academy regardless of political choice, political, economic, housing, recreation, safety, health, and education outcomes of the regions each complex inhabits. In effect this large influence drives the values and social norms of the country and parts of the world. (27)
The proposed role of academic industrial complexes to anchor cities in economic and community development assures more of the same public-private partnerships of inequitable growth driven by past and current neoliberal values. As academic industrial complexes continue to grow their power across America by declaring themselves bastions of scholarship and anchors for economic and community development they must be challenged. They must be challenged for the ways in which they acquired power: through ignoring and exploiting vulnerable populations, through inappropriate partnerships with government, and through expansion of structures which are large enough to affect and control the economies in cities and states.

The role of the academy in promoting freedom of speech, access to unbiased scholarship and research opportunity, equitable access for career development, equitable relations with communities in which it resides, and equitable partnerships with government which promotes public accountability and transparency is not evident. Such a path is necessary to re-instate academia as a partner in all things concerned with distribution of resources fairly within and outside its walls-justice. Documenting and challenging the well-documented gap between university presidents and faculty, the increase in adjunct faculty and part-time faculty, and the role of a 6-year undergraduate education in increasing student debt is required for public and private universities alike. Such a path is possible with challenge by members currently within the institutions (student, faculty, staff, contractors, sub-contractors). The student body has power to challenge their institution to be a setting which encourages education and not consumerism fostered by an academic-corporate marketplace that assembles pre-formed ideological ‘products’ and corporate-America practices that continue capitalist oppression and injustices in social, political and economic systems. Alumni of these institutions also have a role in holding the institutions accountable through letters and articles to the Alumni magazine and project and scholarship-targeted funding. Likewise, withdrawal of funding until changes in university’s policies and current corporate-practices become implemented may force university leadership to address the corporatization of higher education.

Leadership of the academic industrial complexes have the opportunity to deconstruct the industrial complex of the academy and reform themselves a setting that ensures scholarship which promotes equity in all forms, and the resources to assure this occurs. Government’s role in growing the industrial complex of academia can be challenged by tax payers at the local, state, and federal levels. As well, those in government offices must challenge the way neoliberal practices have strengthened the power of academia while diminishing the power of the people-taxation without representation. Such changes would challenge the existing market-driven pedagogy which assures no transparency and accountability- controlled through relationships with government and corporate America. The ‘marketplace’ of academia can then have the opportunity to forge ahead into one of creative scholarship aimed at problem-solving toward equitable and sustainable environments regionally, nationally, and internationally. Moving away from a product-based educational system toward one with values of equity, collective visioning with all affected at the table, less competitiveness, and non-separatism would begin a path away from its current ‘industrial complex’ ideology, goals, and practices.


The role of the public-locally and nationally- to put forth a pedagogy of the oppressed which links the role of the academic industrial complex in local, national, and international inequality is crucial in forcing these unbalanced powerful industrial complexes to transform (28). Free schools which educate and mentor students and faculty in the skills of organizing within and outsides academia’s walls is necessary. Alliances between those within the academic complexes and those outside must forge forward to build a more stable movement against the power and corruption of academia. These alliances must be diverse and connected across all fields: political, health, education, development, law, housing, spiritual. Through organizing and educating about the role of the academic industrial complex and their oppressive force, and through building coalitions that challenge in large numbers the power of these ‘ivory halls of injustice’ the dismantling of this power base of wealth through a power base of informed and activated citizens can emerge.