Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some thoughts about the AAUP, BP, and research

A colleague today called my attention to an interesting news story, involving British Petroleum, the American Association of University Professors, and that organization's current president, Professor Emeritus of English Cary Nelson.

At issue, as you'll see if you click through, are questions of corporate research sponsorship and academic freedom, and questions about the propriety of academic institution accepting corporate funding that comes with various restrictions on the publication and communication of findings. You can find Nelson's thoughts on the implications of this case expressed more fully here.

Here, though, are mine.

Though the nature of this particular story is especially pressing--because of the devastating nature of the oil spill, of course, and the enormous monetary implications of future lawsuits, etc--this is obviously a type of problem that all research universities are facing or are likely to face in the future. Corporate sponsors, even in normal circumstances, are always likely to have an interest in protecting proprietary information uncovered by researchers. But research universities are supposed to produce work that is peer-reviewable and that contributes to ongoing scholarly debates in which information is shared freely among an entire community of investigators.

Then again, as public support for higher education dwindles, universities do need to find other sources of revenue. Nobody wants to raise tuition more than is necessary, because access and diversity are key values and the price of attending a good, public research university is already becoming prohibitive for lower- and middle-income families. So if there is corporate money to be had, I imagine that it is hard for campuses in good conscience to turn it down even if it comes with conditions that threaten the nature of scholarly discourse that universities are supposed to foster.

The previous paragraph will probably sound hopelessly naive to any of my readers who work in science departments at research universities (are there any such readers?), and in most cases I imagine that there are policies in place to protect scientific inquiry and lines that simply will not be crossed. The marine scientist quoted in the piece linked to above implies as much, in fact. And of course this is obviously not a question that English departments are really faced with in exactly the same way: English departments like ours, at the end of the day, are funded primarily by the tuition revenue our classes generate and so do not make extraordinary demands upon public funding or rely heavily upon corporate or federal grant money to make ends meet. But the sciences are very, very expensive (for instance, a new assistant professor in a science department can require a million dollars or more in start-up funds to get his or her lab going) and my understanding is that even the sizable amounts of grant funding that good science departments attract usually cannot defray the cost to the university of doing ambitious science in the first place.

Still, this story matters to me as I sit over in the English Building for a number of interlinked reasons that go beyond the involvement of Cary Nelson and the AAUP (of which organization I am a member). For one thing, I am a big believer in the public-good value of the comprehensive research university and of the full range of kinds of scholarship such a place is designed to produce. So I have a stake--as a citizen and as a member of a university community--in all stories about the way this scholarship is funded and disseminated.

For another, it occurs to me that this is a story about the need for public support of research universities that is interesting because it is not, for once, about humanities curricula.

All too often, in my view, public discourse about the importance of university funding dissolves into arguments among culture warriors of various stripes about what is taught in departments like History or English. But the real truth, as I have suggested above, is that departments like ours are no longer really supported by public funds because we are relatively inexpensive and because we teach a lot of students and generate adequate tuition revenue for the system. We do not see that money directly, of course, and so our health as a department is as dependent as any upon the financial well-being of a university system that depends upon state funding as well as upon tuition and and grants. So my point is not that we are immune to, or uninterested in, state support for higher education. If the system is squeezed, we are squeezed. My point is simply that ambitious scientific research is the thing that cannot be done properly at universities without a robust public investment in higher education. And even though I've dedicated my professional life to the humanities, I ultimately don't think a reasonable person should have any question but that the basic and applied scientific research carried on in universities is in the last analysis a worthwhile public good.

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