For decades the door-hinge give of a cedar bench at the Blue Moon Tavern (whence I scribble) was required drinking space for Northwest imbibers, just as Rainier Club membership was a sine qua non for Seattle's business class.
The latest touchstone, at least for University of Washington honchos, is membership on the corporate board of Nike. For the second time in as many weeks, a UW higher-up, in this case a regent nominee, is tied to the Beaverton, Oregon corporation.
Before shuttling off to Copenhagen last Friday, Gov. Gregoire nominated Orin Smith, the venerable former Starbucks CEO, as a member of the university's Board of Regents. Smith has served on the Nike board since 2004. UW Provost Phyllis Wise, the university's chief academic officer, was appointed a Nike director on November 19 and will receive an annual compensation of between $132,000 and $217,000 (For a full list of future UW regents and administrators, please click here ).
As Nick Perry of the Seattle Times reported, Wise's appointment has kindled blowback from faculty, students, and state legislators.
Phil Knight's invisible hand made visible? The Trilateral Commission writ small?
Supporters of the provost, who is well regarded among Nike-appointment supporters and critics alike, seem flummoxed by the intensity of the backlash. After all, university administrators have accepted corporate directorships at least since the era of former UW President William Gerberding (Safeco). Current UW President Mark Emmert, for example, serves on the boards of both Weyerhaeuser and Expeditors International.
Much of the controversy, however, revolves around a very specific corporation at an especially sensitive time.
Critics note that Nike has a record of strong-arming universities that associate with the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), most famously in 2000 when Phil Knight announced he would suspend all future giving to the University of Oregon, including a $30 million pledge to expand Autzen Stadium. Subsequently, the U of O (surprise)! dropped its WRC membership.
In addition, Huskies have been in the vanguard of anti-sweatshop activism for years. The university is only one of a handful of higher-ed institutions affiliated with both the WRC and the Fair Labor Association. (The latter was established during the Clinton Administration in response to the sweatshop controversy surrounding Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart clothing line.)
Wise's appointment comes just weeks before a budget-from-hell legislative session and at an awkward juncture for the UW: On December 3, members of the University of Washington's Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing voted to put Nike on notice for disregarding the university's code of conduct. Charges include Nike's multiple failures to abide by mandated disclosure standards as well as its refusal to pay severance to workers at two Honduran factories.
The university's next steps, including remediation for the conduct violations and possible contract termination, are in the hands of President Emmert. (The Nike contract is valued at between $35-39 million over ten years.)
Smith's appointment to the Board of Regents may neutralize the primary argument for Wise's Nike directorship, namely that the Provost will give voice to campus concerns and agitate for improved corporate behavior.
No need now. We have Regent-designate Orin Smith for that.