UW committee advises end to Nike relationship

The UW could be just the second in the country to sever ties with Nike over worker rights and transparency issues. That's presuming Mark Emmert approves, at a time when he is about to leave for the NCAA and his university faces big budget issues.
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The UW could be just the second in the country to sever ties with Nike over worker rights and transparency issues. That's presuming Mark Emmert approves, at a time when he is about to leave for the NCAA and his university faces big budget issues.

In a move that reaffirms the University of Washington as a bellwether of workers' rights and anti-sweatshop elbowing, the UW's Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing voted unanimously on June 8 to sandbag renewal of Nike's lucrative university contract set to expire Dec. 31.

The committee's recommendation, the administrative equivalent of a post-quarter exam, will test the mettle of the university's NCAA-bound president, Mark Emmert, and his likely interim successor, Provost Phyllis Wise, who sits on Nike's board.

Nationwide, colleges have led the way in needling Nike and other apparel companies to safeguard fair-labor standards. It's a student- and faculty-driven trend that looks to be growing (Cornell, for example, is considering similar action).

Presupposing that President Emmert approves the committee's decision (thus far Emmert has accepted all committee recommendations), the UW will become only the second university in the United States, after Wisconsin, to sever ties with the Oregon corporation based on human rights and transparency concerns.

Last December, members of the same UW committee voted to put Nike on notice for disregarding the university's code of conduct. Charges included Nike's multiple failures to abide by mandated disclosure standards as well as its refusal to pay severance to workers at two Honduran factories.

Dr. Margaret Levi, the committee's chair and Emmert's former professor, wrote in a June 8 email:

In the absence of evidence that the workers of Vision Tex and Hugger: a) receive the terminal compensation owed them under Honduran law; or b) have, through recognized and legitimate representatives, reached a settlement agreement regarding terminal compensation, ACTL advises the University of Washington not to renew its collegiate licensing agreement with Nike when it comes up for renewal in December 2010.

The Committee feels strongly that it has done its due diligence re Nike's actions and proposals. It also feels strongly that we have waited long enough for Nike to meet its responsibility re the workers in its supply chain. We urge you to accept our advice.

The crux of the matter for Emmert will be whether or not to embrace the committee's recommendation and drop a collegiate-apparel colossus before heading to the NCAA. If Emmert gives the okay, it will stand as a gutsy coda to his nearly six-year tenure as UW president. If not, the decision will rest with his interim successor. However, if the conventional wisdom is correct and that successor is Provost Wise, the decision will need to be kicked down the ladder to sidestep any real or perceived conflict of interest.

It's this Rube Goldberg shuffling to ensure a Nike firewall that has some professors huffing.

In a June 7 letter to the committee chair and co-chair, President Emmert wrote:

As you know, Provost Wise has recused herself from all matters pertaining to the University'ꀙs relationship with Nike due to her service on Nike'ꀙs Board. Were the Regents to appoint her as interim president, we would need to re-position the Committee elsewhere within the administration. Obviously, this will need to wait until the Regents make their decision.

One UW observer responded in an email that if such an internal move occurred, "sweatshop issues will be effectively demoted and the person in charge of making the tough calls on such matters will report to a president on Nike's board!"

Despite student and faculty backlash as well as pressure from the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to resign from Nike's board, Wise has said that she will continue her service while giving voice to campus concerns and agitating for improved corporate behavior. It's a "corporation whisperer" philosophy, not without merit, that Nike board membership by a university administrator enhances and informs corporate policy.

For UW pashas, the Nike saga is a catch-22 that brings into focus broader questions about the evolving mission of a public university.

On the one hand, the public and legislature don't cotton to academics divorced from the real world. It was this perspective, in fact, that made President Emmert's appointment so inspired. Here was a hometown boy from Fife who attended Green River Community College and as UW president served on the boards of both Expeditors International and Weyerhaeuser. It seemed that Emmert understood policy, how to speak in non-jargonese, and how to shake dinero from the dinero tree.

It was only as the state budget tanked and the UW got pegged for arrogant overreach with its stadium demands that the honeymoon ended. To compound matters, declining state support for the UW had become a multi-year pattern.

State lawmakers, facing another $3 billion budget gap on top of the $12 billion deficit of the past two years, aren't amused. "The University of Washington is at a historic juncture as one of the premier institutions of higher education in the world, and we need all hands on deck to build a stronger coalition of students, parents, faculty, alumni and administrators going into next year's budget season," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle. "The provost's lucrative position on Nike's board just doesn't seem in tune with the cold, hard reality facing our state during this great recession."

At the same time, academy corporatization seems to aggravate the divide between UW higher-ups and professors and deans saddled with cut-to-the-marrow budgets. The resentment is palpable. Do we price out students with higher tuition or cut quality? Are the two mutually exclusive? Should corporate connections, and the attendant revenue generated from those connections, be a prerequisite to lead a large, public university like the UW or not?

If the corporatization model is in fact the new paradigm, then the UW may be ahead of the curve on that issue, as well as on workers' rights. Neat trick.


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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