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Why Universities Need to Share the Wealth

Quite like Hollywood's, the glitterati of the university depends on a semi-translucent support crew. There are papers to grade, lab-rats' necks to snap, low-level requisite classes to teach, exams to proctor, online discussions to moderate, etc. As U.S. college enrollment has nearly tripled between 1970 and 2010, this arduous and quasi-intellectual scut work has accumulated quicker than ever.

Rather than hiring more full-time professors to handle it, universities have instead delegated the scrap jobs to graduate students and part-time faculty in ever-larger proportions.

But mention collective bargaining rights for graduate employees, and administrators are suddenly out on the corner wearing cardboard signs about how student unions threaten the university's very ideological foundations: academic freedom, collegiality, and the delicate relationship faculty and students share.

The fuss over preserving these foundations and keeping academia away from the marketplace's sordid affairs is extraordinarily inconsistent.

The Bayh-Dole Act enabled universities to patent academic research and pull it out of the public domain in 1980. The same day it passed, Columbia University coolly altered policy to allow royalty sharing between department and faculty, according to cultural historian Daniel Gilbert.

Rather than responding with sentimental histrionics, the university research community quietly followed Columbia's lead. Reports from the Association of University Technology Matters (AUTM) indicate that the total amount U.S. universities made in patent royalties increased by around 520% during the 1990s. AUTM more recently estimated that academic institutions took home $1.5 billion in patent royalties during 2011 alone.

Administrators euphemize the commodification and sale of university research with the term "academic entrepreneurship." But call it unsentimental thuggery when people who produce the commodity demand the same legal recognitions U.S. law affords other workers.