The Corporate Playbook: Strategies and Impact on Academia
In this article, I expose how and why universities control the narrative, including the practical ways institutional policies suppress ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ and silence dissenting voices. Hidden forces can limit, manipulate or even cancel publication of research outcomes, preventing academic freedoms. Our education systems have been stripped of opportunities for critical thinking with catastrophic consequences. Students’ access to broad curricula, authentic teaching and unbiased learning resources are tightly controlled, for reasons I explain below. Awareness of, and ways to navigate the corporate playbook, including recognition of propaganda have been censored, worsening the distortion of facts for students, staff and wider society.
How has corruption and propaganda been allowed to infiltrate academia? Why can we no longer rely upon ‘experts’ and peer-reviewed publications for unbiased truth? And more importantly, what can be done to address these problems?
Introduction: Politics and Funding
As Daniel Espinosa explains, philanthropy is often a façade for sinister agendas, and academia is a powerful ally in a propaganda war. In 2015, in one of the most prophetic TEDx talks, investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, disentangles how people are fooled into believing their ‘independent’ research is reliable and valid – in part by relying on trusted ‘experts’. Similarly, and also before the Covid era, authors like Taplin exposed how powerful corporates like Google and Facebook have monopolized our culture and demolished democracy, as they continue to do today. Repeated warnings about regulatory capture, the consolidation of power and recommendations for urgent changes have been largely ignored. But this dilemma has been simmering a long time.
Historically, one of the most powerful and influential of those philanthropic entities is The Rockefeller Foundation, which donates $millions to universities across the globe. Beginning in 1913 with funds for public health, from inception, its stated mission was:
“…research and education on birth control, maternal health and sex education. […] to direct the scientific study of biological and social factors that influence human sexual conduct.”
For over a century, the US-based Rockefeller Foundation has created numerous international institutions (beginning in China) and developed close ties with governments, NGOs, leading universities and other educational sectors. It’s not coincidental that in 1925 Rockefeller funded propagandist John Grierson, who ‘invented’ the documentary, seeing it as a ‘hammer to shape society’ during WW2. Inevitably, the Foundation’s wealthy tentacles successfully reached into every discipline, including media. Today, it is difficult to find any element of our knowledge society that The Rockefeller Foundation does NOT have a connection with – from libraries to laboratories, farming to pharmacies, post-doctoral scholarships to school textbooks. This history is important context to the practical strategies of censorship and propaganda in academia that I outline below.
During the 1980’s the drive towards commercialisation of our education systems became more overt. In the UK, a Thatcherite belief in free markets and later New Labour’s Blair calling for ‘modernisation’ led to Neoliberal Managerialism becoming the dominant political tool. Over time, competitive quasi-markets were created within and between educational institutions. The pressures of performance league-tables (introduced into UK schools in 1992 and later forced upon colleges and universities) created an artificially competitive environment for education. Budgets drove cost-efficiency measures and came with new buzz words like ‘value-added’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)’, accompanied by associated surveillance of ‘measurable’ outcomes. My own PhD research (2013) investigated these policies, specifically how Ofsted inspections were negatively impacting tertiary teachers’ health and wellbeing.
Commercialisation, or more accurately Neoliberalism morphed into New Public Management (NPM) in the mid-1990s. By this time there was an increased awareness of its negative impacts, including rising inequalities. Because universities were vulnerable to commercial exploitation to remain financially sustainable, understandably some saw NPM as an opportunity in a ‘crisis’. It was inevitable that, largely unchecked, commercial and political conflicts of interest interfered with and shaped academic roles, research outcomes and eventually, public policy. As Steven Poole reflected in 2006, academic and political language was manipulated in Orwellian Unspeak. As many academics have noted, universities continued to grow numbers of administrators which now outnumbered teaching and research staff. Learning was deprioritized and replaced by multilayered bureaucracy. And as Hayward comprehensively evidences through various case-studies, different types of propaganda infiltrated academia in multiple ways. Alarm bells were soon sounding amongst academics, teachers and students. And these grew louder over the decades. But despite numerous warnings, NPM became all-pervasive, globally, in our schools, colleges and universities (and, of course, other public sectors like the UK NHS). Why was this?
Selling Profitable Learning
In the UK, the sea-change in the relationship between student and university intensified in 2006. High fees were ushered into Higher Education for domestic students and premium fees for overseas students. Competition was intense. With dwindling Government funding, NPM was seen as a lifeline for universities and similar strategies were seen overseas. This created a market in which students became ‘customers’ with rights to a service that must address their needs, or financial (and legal) consequences could result. New ‘partnerships’ were created globally, including sino-foreign cooperative universities in China. In efforts to be ever-more competitive, reduce costs and maximise ‘positive’ (commercially-valued) outcomes, NPM expanded and embedded the existing surveillance and audit culture across all sectors of education. There is broad-ranging evidence that this development has dumbed-down teaching and learning, by reducing the depth and breadth of many courses and therefore students’ learning potential. In turn, staff are de-professionalised and dehumanised. Many argue these policies also exacerbate inequalities.
So, in a nutshell, rather than universities being centres of critical thinking focused on learning for learning’s sake, these ancient traditions have been hijacked in favour of businesses that seek to promote their agenda for financial profit. Ten years ago, Rob Smith and Matt O’Leary warned how advancing NPM top-down policies creates a reductive kind of knowledge production, that in turn allows policy-makers to legitimise further interventions. In universities, NPM has replaced the noble goals of producing and disseminating authentic knowledge, in favour of targets driven by financial gain and proxy measures of commercial success. John Smyth’s book The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology (2017) provides valuable insights into the impact of these mechanisms. For example, how NPM undermines teachers’ professional identities, which can lead to compliance with unethical practices. As Stephen Ball and Deborah Youdell set out in their 2008 report, university research grant income targets are routinely prioritised over ethics, and staff become commodities measured through flawed performance reviews. They warned of the “collapse of the boundaries between moral spheres”, which fifteen years later, is now clear.
But what exactly are the methods used within universities that forces some academics into compliance? Let’s investigate these in more detail, starting with dissemination of research outcomes.
Censorship of Research Findings
Academic staff who speak-out against the NPM culture with its lack of humanity, face serious challenges. Many will be labelled ‘troublemakers’ (or worse); de-platformed; gas-lit; censored and subsequently ‘managed out’. These are all elements of a punitive industry-friendly playbook with origins in the tobacco industry. Alongside creating the illusion of settled or ‘sound science’ the corporate playbook seeks to dismiss, deny, deflect, deceive and divide. The cumulative effect, without careful attention and knowledge of strategies that can assist when speaking truth to power, can abruptly end a career, and with it any progress in the research area that potentially threatens the corporate ideology.
Emeritus Professor of Queen Mary University, London, Norman Fenton explained on his YouTube channel how the Five Stages of Censorship had been used to try to suppress his research of the statistical data during the covid era. He experienced this only when he began to articulate discrepancies he observed in the way the UK Government presented the various public health data. He described the five stages as follows:
- The first stage of academic censorship happened after an article had already passed an anonymous academic journal peer-review process (which usually takes weeks if not months and is very rigorous). It was accepted for publication with minor amendments, but then unusually, the Editor of the journal then intervened. The accepted article was then sent to different peer-reviewers, without rationale, and predictably, after further delay, was subsequently rejected outright.
- The second stage of censorship that Prof Fenton experienced was when an article was submitted to a journal for academic peer-review, but was immediately rejected by the Editor, without peer-review, accompanied by what the authors interpreted as a bogus excuse.
- The third stage of censorship was an article being rejected even before it reached the journal’s Editor, perhaps with Artificial Intelligence (AI) checking online submissions for ‘off limits’ keywords and/or author(s) names.
- The fourth stage was an academic article being rejected even from pre-print platforms, where draft academic articles are often posted prior to submission to a journal for informal comment and peer-review. Fenton explained this was ‘almost never heard of’ prior to the covid era.
- And finally, the fifth stage of censorship, and perhaps the most concerning for us all, was a 1984-like attempt at re-writing history. Prof Fenton’s previously-published peer-reviewed academic articles (unrelated to covid data) have now come ‘under fire’. Complaints concerning bogus claims of conflicts of interest were sent to journal editors to try to discredit the validity of the Professor’s published research and thereby get these articles retracted.
Subscribers to Fenton’s YouTube channel, added personal comments detailing their own experiences, suggesting the further ‘Stages of Censorship’ which may follow: “Stage six is where they get you fired by your university” said one, “Stage seven is where they prevent you being hired by any other academic institution.” Another commentator added “Stage eight is where all your work and citations are memory-holed.” Subsequently, an ominous (now deleted) commentator added “Don’t mention stage nine…” These observations and comments are consistent themes within the many books, articles and Open Letters, included in the field of Critical University Studies. The corporate playbook of censorship and suppression of dissent in academia, including ‘groupthink’, has been used for many decades, but perhaps only during the Covid era has it become more ubiquitous and therefore more visible.
If Fenton’s experience is typical of researchers trying to publish their own (counter-narrative) research during the covid era, how did the voices of those supporting the political narrative seem to get published and shared so widely? Policies of suppression that prevent research being carried out in the first place can quickly be replaced by those which fast-track outcomes favoured by the funders. Voila! The institution’s financial stability and its reputation is secured.
Methods of Silencing ‘Dissent’
Professor Emeritus Brian Martin, at Wollongong University, Vice President and International Director of Whistleblowers Australia publishes on topics related to suppression of research outcomes. His investigations support how scholars can be denied tenure, harassed, reprimanded, ostracised by colleagues, have research grants declined and are then dismissed. More recently, technologies such as AI make anonymous online attacks; create fake offensive content and discredit whistleblowers.
In highly specialised disciplines and/or sparse populations like New Zealand, academic peer-review rarely functions as an authentic, anonymous feedback strategy. For instance, academics maybe aware of current studies and recognise methods and writing styles of students/colleagues. The complex power relationships within the competitive ‘publish or perish’ environment can restrict professional dialogue. A university’s Public Relations (PR) department can also accompany calls from managers for the suppression of certain research findings and use spin to disguise unethical practices.
Pressures to Conform
Most modern universities’ research staff are pressured with regular surveillance strategies, with one element of ‘success’ being measured in terms of publication in ‘top’ peer-reviewed journals. The impact of these requirements means that research outputs must fit the narrow demands of these journals, which in turn obtain funding from corporates such as The Rockefeller Foundation and subscriptions from those same institutions. This discourages innovative research and debates that question existing paradigms, thereby encouraging conformity. For example, an article is likely to be more attractive to an editor, if it includes popular keywords, like ‘climate change’. Contrived ‘likes and shares’ on staff social media posts are also now considered a valued KPI for a university’s commercial brand image.
Pressure to succeed in winning funded research projects, and subsequently publish in ‘top’ journals, brings anxiety. This was evident in the case of Prof Grimm, who sadly took his own life when his institution deemed his research grant funding success was insufficient. And this tragedy is unfortunately not an isolated incident.
And even when successful, restrictions may persist. As Marcia Angell famously wrote in her book nearly 20 years ago, commercial interests have almost limitless power over research, education and policy. Funding grant contracts are signed by institutional finance departments so research staff maybe unaware of strict legal criteria controlling their work. Funder interference in research is common, and includes criteria known as ‘suppression clauses’, the details of which may only become apparent at publishing stage. These non-negotiable clauses form part of the regulatory capture that ensure any research outcomes that could be interpreted as ‘unfavourable’ to the funder’s objectives, are withheld from publication. One study suggested this could be a regular phenomenon in public-good research, with as many as one in five academics admitting to conforming to suppression clauses. For instance, a low-cost herbal medicine that could treat a disease could be prevented from being promoted by Big Pharma. Contract termination clauses, where no reason is required by the funders, provide strategies whereby ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ from research investigations can be effectively stopped and outcomes deleted. Other legal restrictions within funders’ contract clauses may limit the use of products used (e.g., software) or restrict intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, academics reliant upon funding for job security are often unable to resist these pressures.
The toxic culture of an institution also plays a part in self-censorship. Anyone ‘successful’ who speaks out or is non-compliant can endure bullying and harassment and be isolated and silenced. Furthermore, Human Resource (HR) departments can undertake sham investigations; set up fake hearings and then facilitate the firing of staff who question the system. The diagram above shows a summary of these ‘before and after’ strategies of how universities control the narrative.
Lack of Transparency
Between 2017 and 2019, UK universities spent nearly £90m paying-off staff with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or “gagging orders”, so victims of these toxic environments are being silenced. But this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg when we consider how some Freedom of Information Act (or Official Information Act and similar legislation outside the UK) can be rejected if funding is connected to public/private partnerships – the rationale? This information is ‘commercially sensitive’. NDAs are strategies used in academia globally and have undoubtedly increased substantially in the context of Covid era censorship, propaganda and vaccine mandates.
Micro-management of teaching and learning in universities can include controversial criteria insisting courses avoid specific phrases and include certain theoretical frameworks such as Critical Race Theory (CRT). Postgraduate students pursuing research topics outside the ‘allowed parameters’ such as in Australia, Governmental vaccine policies or in the US the structural anomalies of the collapse of the WTC7, can be subjected to harassment. Likewise, their academic supervisors can become targets of claims that aim to discredit their work and their institution’s reputation. Unsurprisingly, as both a postgraduate student and an academic, I have personal experience of witnessing healthy debate within seminars and online forums being stifled, student assignments being unfairly marked down and potentially valuable research proposals being declined, probably because the study was deemed unsupportive to overarching agendas.
Cost Efficiencies and Waste
Finally, it is paradoxical that although the objectives of NPM are to achieve cost reductions, the impact often leads to increasing costs. Universities do not represent good value to the taxpayer. This is because NPM stifles new ideas and pressures academics to reach unrealistic targets. Strategies I’ve mentioned above, like NDAs, contract suppression clauses and censorship, inevitably increases costs, because of unnecessary duplication of tenders and subsequently, research work and outcomes. Staff turnover with associated recruitment and training costs also increases as younger academics, blinded by ambitions and financially limited by work visa commitments may discover ‘academic freedom’ is a myth.
Where to Next?
In conclusion, although academic freedom is protected by law, our judicial systems have failed because critical thinking has been deliberately discouraged. The human tragedies resulting from our broken education systems are undeniable and the financial and intellectual costs, enormous. Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of how university administrators and management repeatedly erase groundbreaking, impartial research and authentic, quality teaching and learning. Now, students and staff at universities urgently need training in critical thinking skills which focus specifically on how to recognise and overcome censorship and propaganda. This is particularly important for teacher-educators tasked with equipping the next generation of teachers. Citizens need comprehensive knowledge of behavioural science, including data surveillance and how these strategies are weaponised by government overreach. And how they can be overcome. Without full understanding of our current dilemma, potential educational solutions cannot progress.
In a new paradigm of criticality and awareness, parallel communities of teaching and learning can flourish. As Taplin warned in 2017, it’s not only musicians and artists who are being exploited, but “everyone who seeks the free exchange of ideas and culture”. We are therefore all vulnerable to becoming victims of the monopolies of our digital economy. Censorship and propaganda in academia needs to be halted. Independent, quality research outcomes, together with open debate and learning for learning’s sake needs new, ethical foundations. These conversations are well overdue.