AAUP chapter calls for UW provost to resign from Nike board

The Nike post becomes more controversial for Provost Phyllis Wise, especially as the legislature is about to consider the UW budget in a critical year.
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Phyllis Wise

The Nike post becomes more controversial for Provost Phyllis Wise, especially as the legislature is about to consider the UW budget in a critical year.

The saga over University of Washington Provost Phyllis Wise's November 19 appointment as a paid director at Nike took another twist Monday, as the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors(AAUP) issued a formal statement calling for Wise to step down from the board of the Oregon corporation.

The AAUP announcement comes exactly one week before the start of the 2010 legislative session and a machete-knife budget that could compromise the university's standing as a top-tier school.

"In my view it is simply inappropriate for a full time, highly paid public servant to personally benefit so handsomely from a corporate board position that she unquestionably gained because of her leadership of one of the most prestigious public universities in the world,"Rep. Reuven Carlylesaid Monday. "While I certainly respect her right to privacy, surely she realizes that she is a public official by the very nature of her public role, position, and salary, and her fiduciary obligation is therefore to the people of Washington."

"I have talented high school seniors in my Seattle district graduating with 3.5, 3.6 grade point averages who can't get slots at UW," Carlyle continued, "and their parents are justifiably resentful about that lack of access. That is the real higher education issue, and we need to refocus attention back on what's important for real people living real lives."

Opposition to Wise's appointment largely revolves around the directorship's annual six-figure compensation, the university's public image, and Nike's pattern of bullying universities affiliated with the Workers Rights Consortium and anti-sweatshop activism.

In addition, the University of Washington's Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing voted last month to put Nike on notice for disregarding the university's code of conduct. Violations include Nike's various failures to abide by mandated disclosure standards as well as its refusal to pay severance to workers at two Honduran factories.

The committee's December 3 recommendation prompted UW President Mark Emmert to notify Nike poobahs that, "The failure of NIKE to properly respond to these current issues will inevitably jeopardize our business relationship."

In a strongly worded letter written on Dec. 23 but just released, Emmert wrote, "I believe it is important to take this opportunity to underscore the importance of the Code of Conduct and emphasize NIKE'ꀙs obligation to fully comply with it. I value the University'ꀙs relationship with NIKE, but I also value highly the rights of laborers in NIKE'ꀙs manufacturing plants."

The following is an excerpt from the AAUP statement:

Phyllis Wise clearly was not simply plucked from obscurity as a 'ꀜprivate individual'ꀝ by the Nike Corporation. Nor is it clear why she or President Emmert, both of whom are also members of the UW faculty, should be any more free to act 'ꀜas a private individual'ꀝ outside the existing regulations than any other member of the faculty. Since Phyllis Wise is a member of the faculty, her consideration of a position on Nike'ꀙs board should be subject to the same mechanisms already in place, for review and approval of the outside activities of faculty members, including service on corporate boards.

When companies seek to work with university faculty, however, it is generally on the basis of the faculty'ꀙs expertise in particular areas of research relevant to the company'ꀙs activities. It is difficult to see what special interest the Nike Corporation could possibly have in Phyllis Wise'ꀙs research expertise in obstetrics and gynecology. Rather, it seems clear that, as the Seattle Times suggests, it is 'ꀜin her capacity as Provost'ꀝ that she is being offered this position and is accepting it. In other words, the specialized knowledge and insight that Phyllis Wise has to offer to the Nike Corporation is not her research expertise, but rather her knowledge of (and association with) the University. The Provost'ꀙs decision may have been reviewed by legal experts and deemed legally permissible, but it is clearly not in accord with established governance mechanisms, nor is it the right thing to do.

AAUP-UW submits that it is not in the interest of the University for its top administrators to offer up knowledge about the institution, gained in the course of serving in a leadership position within it, to the Nike Corporation or any other private company in the form of a consultancy or service on a corporate board — especially when income from that consultancy goes not to the university itself but into the pocket of the administrator. This holds not only for the Provost but for the President as well.

The University spends a significant amount of money to pay its top administrators, and it is only fair for the University to expect that the individuals receiving that compensation act on behalf of the University and avoid even the appearance of conflicts. In this respect, the salaries of UW'ꀙs top administrators might be understood in terms of the argument made regarding police, legislators, and public servants more generally: that they must be compensated fairly in order to avoid creating conditions conducive to corruption. The obligation that this places upon such public servants is crystal clear: they must not enter into any agreement or accept any position that creates even the appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson