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The Academic-Industrial Complex

The New York Times - William G. Bowen was president of Princeton University for 16 years and served on two boards, including Merck’s. It was an experience, he says, that was invaluable in helping him build up Princeton’s then-fledgling life sciences activities.

“It influenced my understanding of how the field was evolving, where new ideas were most likely to appear, where to look for talent,” he recalls. “It was one long seminar in the sciences and molecular biology.”

There are benefits for the company, too.

One obvious advantage is having an outsider who thinks about alternative solutions to corporate problems. Another is diversity.

Phyllis M. Wise, the provost of the University of Washington, is on Nike’s board. Nike said it hired Dr. Wise, an Asian-American, “because of her impressive accomplishments and her record of independent thought, and we believe that through the exchange of ideas, both Nike and the University of Washington will benefit.”

But according to James H. Finkelstein, a professor in the George Mason School of Public Policy, probably the biggest reason companies have sought out academics is the prestige they bring. Universities are among the few institutions trusted by the public, he says, and companies believe they can associate themselves with this quality by installing an academic on the board.

John Gillespie, who has written a book on corporate boards, “Money for Nothing,” says academics are often selected for another reason — because they are less likely to rock the boat than directors from the business world.

Academics may be trained to ask tough questions in their own fields, but when confronted with tricky business issues far above their level of expertise they “often become as meek as church mice,” he says. Read more.

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