“Re-Moralising the University”
26 August 2009
Thank you Jeff for that introduction and welcome everyone.
I hope that you had no trouble finding this venue.
Macquarie University is a big place and sometimes people get lost.
To help visitors navigate their way around, we have placed maps at strategic spots around the
The other day I noticed that one of these maps had been embellished with graffiti.
Under the orientation arrow, the one that says, “You are here”, someone had added, “but why?”
Why are we here? What, exactly, is the university for?
I will try to answer these questions in my speech.
So, just to be sure you don‟t miss it, I would like to give you my take away message up front.
Universities once had clear ethical purposes but over the years we have lost our moral direction.
To fulfil our true purpose, universities need to get back on course; my takeaway message is this:
we need to re-moralise.
To show you how much, I would like to start by taking you back through the foggy mists of time
to my childhood.
When I was five years old my family lived in New York City.
That was the year the little girl next door fell victim to polio.
Fear gripped the neighbourhood.
Children received gamma globulin injections, but these conferred temporary immunity at best.
Although it was summer, parents kept their children away from parks and public swimming
Some refused to let their children play outside.
My parents moved us to the country for the summer.
They thought the clean air would offer protection against infection.
While we were away, the girl who lived next door spent weeks in an iron lung and returned
home with a brace on her leg.
She survived, but with a disability; many others were not so lucky.
Re-moralising the University 1
Vice-Chancellor’s Oration August, 2009
Thousand of people around the world died of polio that year, more than half were children.
This drama was repeated every summer.
Everyone was relieved when autumn brought an end to the polio season, but the cycle of fear
would begin again the following year.
Then, two years later, something amazing happened.
Jonas Salk, a young, and previously obscure, university researcher, created a vaccine.
The initial results looked promising but a large-scale research project was required to be certain
that the vaccine was safe and effective.
A call went out for children to participate in a nationwide double-blind trial and my parents did
not hesitate to enrol me.
My parents were not unique.
All together, two million primary school children, known as “Polio Pioneers” rolled up their 1 sleeves for what became known as “The Shot Heard „Round the World”.
I can remember queuing in the school hall for my four injections, and the red lollipops they gave
us for being “brave” and not crying—or, in my case, to get me to stop crying.
The trial proved a success; the vaccine was safe and effective.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that I was in the control group.
The injections I received contained nothing but salt water.
So, along with the children who didn‟t even participate in the trial, I had to have the shots all over again.
Jonas Salk became justifiably famous.
He was the son of immigrants and the first person in his family to have a university education.
So, don‟t ever let anyone tell you that giving more people a chance to go to university is a bad
No one knows how many more Jonas Salks there are out there, just waiting to be discovered.
Although Salk became famous he did not become rich.
This is because he and the University of Pittsburgh, the private university where he worked,
licensed the vaccine to anyone who wanted to manufacture it.
The ethical premise driving Salk‟s work was simple.
The purpose of university research was the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the
benefit of society.
Making money was never their goal.
1 See for example http://www.polio.pitt.edu/
Steven Schwartz 2
Vice-Chancellor’s Oration August, 2009
Now, let‟s fast-forward to the present and look at the world today.
Would parents be as eager to sign up their kids to this kind of experiment today?
I wish I could say yes, but I am sad to say the answer is probably no.
Many of today‟s parents refuse to allow their children to have tried-and-true vaccines let alone
It‟s not that my parents were naïve. They knew that clinical trials carried risk.
But they believed universities worked in the public interest.
This is why they trusted the scientists who told them that the potential benefits of the trial
justified the risks.
This trust now seems to be gone.
Today‟s parents are deeply sceptical about science and scientists.
They particularly distrust the commercial motives of drug companies, researchers and
And let‟s face it, they have a point. Let me give you one example.
Over the last few months, the Australian media have been covering the progress of a lawsuit
against Merck, Sharp and Dohme, the pharmaceutical company responsible for a drug called
Vioxx was sold as a powerful treatment for arthritis pain.
Three hundred thousand Australians used the drug, but it was pulled off the market when it
appeared that Vioxx, especially at high doses, caused strokes and heart attacks.
Whether the drug causes complications and any compensation paid will be determined by the
court, but a little known part of the wider story is the role played by famous university scientists
in getting drugs approved in the first place.
It works like this.
Drug companies have their in-house staff produce research articles extolling their product‟s benefits.
Company representatives then approach well-known medical researchers and ask them to put
their names on the articles as the author.
Reluctant researchers are told that even prime ministers and presidents have ghost-writers so
why not scientists?
Many well-known scientists agree.
The result is that articles, actually written by company employees, wind up in prestigious
medical journals under the names of famous scientists.
Steven Schwartz 3
Vice-Chancellor’s Oration August, 2009
It is important to note that I am not talking about second-rate scientists working in obscure
Endorsements from unknowns don‟t sell drugs.
It‟s like tennis, you don‟t go to the runner-ups for endorsements, you go the champions.
The scientists who pose as authors include some of the most famous scientists in the world;
scientists working at some of the most prestigious universities.
Are you shocked? Don‟t be. This practice is so widespread it is practically routine. For agreeing to pose as authors, scientists sometimes receive travel grants from
These grants allow the scientists to present the research (that they did not actually conduct) at
medical conferences in Hawaii, maybe, or Paris or Rio, never in Cleveland or Leeds or Dubbo.
But such inducements are rarely necessary.
Publications are the coin of the realm in university scientific careers.
Some scientists agree to pose as authors just so they can add another paper to their CVs.
Clearly, we live in another time and another place from Salk.
The central ethical premise of universities has changed fundamentally.
The discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by the desire to exploit it.
Just think, can anyone today imagine a university giving a valuable vaccine away?
In fact, the government encourages universities to do just the opposite—to patent our
discoveries and capitalise on our intellectual property.
One famous university has just spent a large amount of money on lawyers trying to prove to a
court that it owned the rights to a successful drug.
The university lost the case and paid out a fortune in legal fees.
Was the institution sorry it took the matter to court?
Far from it. As one senior staff member explained, had the claim been successful, the university
would have made millions.
Please don‟t get me wrong. I am not against patents, or capitalism or getting rich for that matter.
I agree with the screen siren, Mae West, who said, “I‟ve been rich and I‟ve been poor and,
believe me baby, rich is better.” There is nothing illegal in universities trying to exploit the commercial value of their intellectual
And heaven knows, universities need the money.
Oscar Wilde said that he could resist everything but temptation.
Steven Schwartz 4
Vice-Chancellor’s Oration August, 2009
Well, sometimes it feels as if Vice-Chancellors can resist everything but money.
We must recognise, however, that commercial transactions carry their own imperatives, and
these may not be compatible with traditional academic values.
Let me give you an example.
2A Stanford University study found that 98 per cent of research papers sponsored by drug
companies report that the drugs are effective.
In contrast, only 79 per cent of non-company-sponsored research papers report positive results.
When the results of scientific experiments depend on who pays for them, it is not surprising that
people have become sceptical about the pronouncements of medical scientists.
I have been using examples from medicine and science because that is my background.
But those of you here tonight who are not scientists should not feel too smug.
Scientists are not the only ones whose ethics require scrutiny.
The financiers whose fast and loose behaviour has caused financial distress and misery to
families around the world included some of the brightest graduates from the world‟s leading
The British parliamentary expenses scandal—which has produced lurid stories about taxpayer funded pornography, house furnishings and private castles and moats—was perpetrated by
graduates of the United Kingdom‟s most prestigious universities. I think that the guy with the castle and moat will probably come out best.
When the angry taxpayers come to extract their revenge, he just has to pull up the drawbridge
and watch everyone fall into the moat.
It is hard not to become cynical.
Just because something is legal does not make it right.
Nor is it right because everyone is doing it.
As the American comedienne, Lily Tomlin, said, the trouble with joining the rat race is that even
if you win, you‟re still a rat.
Instead of taking a stand, universities have kept quiet.
This is because they no longer have a moral role, they have given it up for one that is strictly
This year‟s federal budget papers make this starkly clear. The purpose of universities, say the budget papers is (and I quote) “to grow the knowledge-3based economy”.
2 Mildred K. Cho and Lisa A. Bero, ‘The Quality of Drug Studies Published in Symposium Proceedings’, Annals of Internal
Medicine, Volume 124 Issue 5 March 1996 pp 485-489 see - http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/abstract/124/5/485
3 See http://www.budget.gov.au/2009 10/content,/glossy/education/html/education_overview_01.htm
Steven Schwartz 5
Vice-Chancellor’s Oration August, 2009 Don‟t you just love the cliché “the knowledge-based economy”? Is there anyone here tonight who can name an ignorance-based economy?
The budget papers go on to describe the university as a “key contributor to … economic
Invest more in higher education, says the budget papers, and the result will be more wealth for
The former Australian Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham, in his report, The Chance to Change,
was not content with such low-key rhetoric.
He cranks up the volume to screaming point.
According to Batterham, money invested in higher education has gigantic payoffs because 4universities are "dynamos of growth [and] huge generators of wealth creation". As a Vice-Chancellor, I would really love to believe this, but I am sorry to say that it is grossly
There is no automatic correlation between the amount of money spent on universities and
Consider Switzerland, for example.
It is a wealthy, high growth, economy invests, yet it invests less of its national wealth in higher
education than does Poland.
France, a wealthy country, invests less than Chile, a developing one.
Brazil, one of the ten largest economies in the world, has achieved strong economic growth
while spending less than any OECD country on its universities. India is a similar case.
Hong Kong has had high GDP growth for most of the past fifty years with only a tiny university