Scandal Reveals Political Greed Much Closer to Home

Ignacio Chapela is an assistant professor at UC Berkeley. Send comments to [email protected]

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David Lazarus' article in the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us of the grotesque dance party held among money-inebriated politicians and profit-hungry corporations ("Politics and $$$, Oh My!" Jan. 6). But in his excellent review of this spectacle, he also leaves us with an important marker of our times: Among the top political donors in Lazarus' ball-roster, a single dancer sorely stands out, awkwardly accompanied by wiry SBC and fat Wal-Mart, as a badly-disguised guest to the obscene money-party: the University of California.

For those who continue to bury their heads in the sand assuming that UC represents the public, this should be a clear signal of how far "their" university, and academia in general, has strayed. Today's UC is much more interested in promoting the profit motives of its executives and professor-entrepreneurs, and those of its corporate friends, than the urgent needs of the public of California.

This conflict of interest has been long in the making and is now evident by many measures. Particularly since the signing of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, U.S. public universities have become not only hosts to profit-oriented research and development, but actual business partners and competitors, on par with other corporations, albeit playing by their own rules. The post-Bayh-Dole UC has frequently been the corporation with the largest number of patents filed with the U.S. patent office, and there is no end to profit-making ventures by the university, in partnerships or by itself, to the detriment of its public teaching and research mandates.

Because of its business interests, the university has also fatally compromised its independence to provide guidance for the regulation of new technological applications in the public environment. How can UC be at the same time the main source of critical information on technologies such as agricultural biotech, stem-cell manipulation, nanotech or nuclear devices, when its own professors and administrators are shareholders and executives in those very industries? Are we to believe that the political goodwill bought by UC's $2.3 million in campaign contributions in 2004 is being used to promote the interests of students and the poor majority of this state, rather than to remove regulatory hurdles to the speedy application of UC's "intellectual property," regardless of its potential health and environmental consequences?

Jack Abramoff's illegal lobbying activities are not, Lazarus tells us, unique or isolated. The many recent scandals linking UC to illegitimate money interests should also be seen in their broader context, as part of a pattern. A few examples include the unconscionable pay to UC executives, the university's role in the multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to obtain political support for its multibillion-dollar role in the fields of stem-cell and nano-biotechnology research, the unabashed use of UC's Extension Service network to promote, willy-nilly, agricultural biotechnologies that have proved to be spectacular failures and its questionable involvement with the administration of the national laboratories. All these should also be seen not in isolation, but as part and parcel of the corruption that has already engulfed the best of our political and intellectual institutions.


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