Faculties, Colleges, and Research Ethics

Lincoln -- Two recent happenings in higher education may seem disparate but should be considered together. One is a seminar lecture on the IANR campus at the University of Nebraska by trial lawyer David Domina; another is the closing of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

The Domina lecture, available here, includes at minute 31:45 this statement:

When you want a grant to do research at your university, you get the grant from one of the companies that produces that kind of a [seed corn] bag and you are expected to produce a result for them or you don't get it back the next time. And everyone in this room knows that's true. It hurts to admit it and we seldom say it out loud.

So this is what research in the 21st Century has come to. I am in no position to disagree. As a former higher education researcher and research administrator, I find the statement rings true. Some researchers themselves have pointed this out by showing strong associations between funding sources and findings.

One remedy against for-sale research has been peer review, but even this process is doubtful when the whole research endeavor is being corrupted. Are faculty at one land-grant college going to undermine faculty at another when they are all dependent on the same grant sources? No. Will faculty in a college of the same university critique another faculty at the same institution? No; there will be hell to pay from university PR offices. Will governors and state legislatures come up with tax dollars to keep research independent from outside funding interests? No; this is not on anyone's agenda.

Which brings the discussion to Sweet Briar. One of the historical strengths of higher education in America has been that not all faculties are funded by the same sources. Some are funded by sources beyond the control of business interests; some are even beyond the control of government appropriations. The country needs colleges where faculties are free to pursue truth without pressures by funding sources, private or public. Anytime a college, especially an independent one like Sweet Briar, goes down, it is a loss for the entire higher education endeavor.

Does the Commonwealth of Virginia know what it is losing? Sweet Briar is an independent, not-for-profit college operating as a public trust. It has benefitted over generations by benevolent policies making it tax-exempt, in recognition of its value to the public interest. Does the Sweet Briar board of directors itself know what it is closing down? From the account in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the board felt badly about what it would be doing to its own faculty, but only in a personal sense. The board gave up without a fight, without letting the public know what it was about to do.

At the least, the board should have involved commonwealth officials. The attorney general will necessarily be involved anyway, sorting out the messy legal details. Pollyannas will say all is well, not to worry: Sweet Briar and its kind are dispensable. But the funding model for American higher education is broken; Sweet Briar is getting so much attention nationally because it may be only the first of many colleges that will see no alternative to closing.

Even if the Sweet Briar faculty is not a research faculty in the sense it could or would critique the methods and findings of seed corn research, its faculty and many like it across the country are in a position to teach research ethics. I was on a university panel last week with a fellow panelist who attended Indiana Wesleyan. It was the faculty there, he said, who instilled in him the perspective to know how and when he should act when he witnessed wrongdoing. What kind of lessons are we teaching students when our faculties at too many institutions are selling out to who is paying for their research?

Congress is getting on on the act and may try to force disclosure of research funding sources. Which may be a necessary step, but disclosure alone is no substitute for faculty integrity in the first place.