Jewish World Review June 30, 2004/ 11 Tamuz 5764

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Confessions of an unnamed professor | Staples Center, FedEx Field, Bank One Ballpark, Edward Jones Dome, and Petco Park. Take a stadium, and for several million per year, a business can name it. We've always looked across amateur and pro sports fields to find ads: the 6-feet orange Nehi bottle or the clock courtesy of the local jeweler. Ameriquest Mortgage Field is just extreme marketing. Carry on, corporate sports sponsors! All possible resulting revenues to you.

There is, however, something about the Petco or HealthSouth professor of whatever. We can rename Enron Field or Adelphia Coliseum when those corporate ships go down, and chalk it up to business cycles and risk. But when one is the Enron Professor of Economics, or, worse, of Ethics, how does an academic carry on as the namesake of a company that has defied the principles of both fields?

How does one retain academic distance and remain truth's explorer when carrying the flag of a corporate sponsor? Have we in higher ed compromised our valued insights because we are no longer detached from the pressures of the commercial world? While analysts, auditors, and the business media have been faulted for their cheerleader behavior vis--vis corporations that were merely sophisticated Ponzi schemes, no one has pointed toward the ivory tower. Perhaps they should. At least two business professors were in the bowels of Enron making a documentary on how to run a company well even as that company was about to restate its earnings by billions and declare bankruptcy.

They couldn't see it coming? Many of us knew of the problems with the dot-coms. We said nothing during the boom that defied rational thought because we were beneficiaries.

That may be the point of corporate sponsorship of academics and their institutions. Academic affiliation, via a name on some bricks and mortar or a prof, brings credibility. It can also net a pass on criticism, and, maybe, a needed product boost from sponsored research.

Call it philanthropy. Call it an investment in the future. Call it a partnership. A conflict is a conflict, even in the academic world. Corporate sponsorships in higher education are but signs around the infields that evidence relationships that can be too cozy for integrity.

On at least two occasions, just as I was taking the podium to speak to business leaders about ethics, I have been reminded by administrators, "There are _____ executives in the audience. Take it easy on them."

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I can only offer the truth about ethics and companies. Whether that goes easy or hard on them depends on what they have or have not done. Academic research once carried the imprimatur of objectivity. But, human nature, quid pro quo, indeed, fear, demand that you go easy on the castle's lord. The very essence of institutions of higher learning as independent isles is lost as we become intertwined in commercial ventures.

The drive for private money finds us wondering who's sponsoring whom, what offense will be taken, and what a loss of private funding means to the budget. From royalties on pharmaceuticals to annual donations for endowed chairs, we are beholden. Twice in the past year, I have refused to speak at corporations that sought to censor my remarks. How ironic that a company would seek to control content in a speech on ethics! Ironic, but, obviously, a right they presumed that they had as the party offering a fee for the speech.

Money talks, money controls, and it does consume. The May 28, 2004 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education was devoted to nothing but endowment articles: size, investment strategies, beating the market, and motivating folks to get more. One article suggests that we universities should now be giving to charities. We have become our donors. There still may be a beacon of truth at the top of the ivory tower, but, if there is, it is probably sponsored by GE.

I offer no rules, statutory reforms, or resolutions for the growing invasion of corporate sponsorships and resulting pressures. Rather, I offer a mere prick to the conscience. These named sponsorships have the feel of the kept artiste, the beneficent matron supports the starving and struggling, but virile, male. George Peppard and Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany's. For a relatively small price your corporation can have its own PhD sycophants.

Most of us chose an academic career not for money, fame, or schmoozing. We became scholars and professors because we love truth and imparting it to our charges and a public that has graced us with the resources for our perches of detached and unbridled observation. We hold these auctions for corporate ad space at the expense of our independence.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2004, Marianne M. Jennings