The University of Nike

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

A student activist

“Because we are who we are, we are a wonderful target to use as a means to an end.”  -Lee Weinstein, Nike Spokesman

“Of all the evils affecting Germany today, even including the licentiousness of the press, the student nuisance is the greatest, the most urgent, and the most threatening.”  -Letter to Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Klemens von Metternich, 1817

ON MARCH 8, NIKE sponsored two different sporting events.  Countless numbers of Nike-branded NCAA basketball teams played that Saturday in preparation for the March madness of the NCAA Basketball tournament.

On the same day, half way around the world, Nike money promoted an unusual running event.  On International Women’s Day, a Nike subcontracted floor manager at the Taiwanese firm Pou Chen Vietnam Enterprise forced 56 female employees to run in circles in the hot sun as punishment for wearing non-regulation shoes into the workplace.  Twelve women fainted as a result and were taken to a local hospital.

Most would say the latter event was not your average Nike program.  Well, Nike is not your average shoe company.  To be fair, Nike did fire and punish the manager involved; to be honest, this is probably not the only Nike-sponsored labor violation.

Nike Corporation’s missions have never been to just make basketball shoes; they want to be sports agents, community leaders, and college boosters.  At the University of Oregon, the alma mater of Nike CEO Phil Knight, Nike wants to be a partner with the Athletic Department, while at the same time Mr. Knight wants to be the financial supporter for everything from the library to the President’s salary.

Nike is just a piece of the bigger puzzle of private donors in public universities, but it is a perfect example of why private money is helping to erode the positive goals of public education.  In the 1990s, businesses have been put out to the public to love and adore.  Nike invites the public to buy into their “Just Do It” goals when five-year- olds buy their t-shirts.

Still, despite all their community involvement and marketing, one would think that Nike’s labor problems should cause a certain amount of outrage-it is supposedly a “people” company.  Yet, nothing has really happened.  There have been complaints, but there has been little excitement: no rallies at the doorstep of the World Campus in Beaverton; no marches down the streets of universities.

Public centers for concern have not become involved.  Maybe that’s because Nike owns them all. Last year Phil Knight gave the University of Oregon $25 million for a new law school and fifteen endowed professorships, including a $40,000 presidential salary supplement.

For a multibillionaire, that’s generous indeed.  For that chunk of money he gets his father’s name (who was a U of O law school alumnus) on the side of the building.  A few years earlier, Mr. Knight gave an undisclosed sum of money to help remodel and expand the library.  For that service, he was paid with his own name in front of that building.

Add this to Nike Corporation’s $7 million equipment and advertising deal with the Athletic Department, and we might be looking at a university name change sometime early next century.

So, although balking at giving minimum wage to Vietnamese workers, Nike doesn’t mind spending millions to butter up the United States public about the corporation’s innovative labor practices.  Nike’s directors help at-risk youth and subsidize higher education to show that they are the good guys. Spending money and buying publicity is all part of the ball game.

Follow the Money

These days higher education is up for sale-corporations throw their money, they get their publicity and higher education is still left holding an empty bag. Universities are losing the ball game. The idea is that corporations are doing the public a great service.  The reality is that private money chips away at public higher education in favor of corporate interests and corporate gain.

Private colleges need private money to survive, and rightfully so: They exist to serve those elite that can support them. They have special interests, and they should-if Bill Gates wants to give a school $75 million, he gives it so a school can buy better computer programs so that he can eventually build better computers.

One really cannot spend Gates’ money on the Theater Arts or English.  The money is spent on an engineering school.  Giving to get back-that is the private ideal.

Public colleges on the other hand need public money.  Private schools grew out of a need for a better private world; public schools were formed for the sake of communities.  The money comes out of the community, thus the community is the benefactor.  Everyone contributing to better the whole-that is the public ideal.

Idealism is out of style in the 1990s.  Back in the days when public education was getting its big push, it was the unifying stimulus of a public mission that placed it on another level.  Communities and states helped pay for school on the understanding that eventually that money would come back to the community in better individuals and leaders.

Investment in higher education meant a commitment to the future.  The future no longer belongs in the public educational vision.  When people talk about investing in higher education in the realistic world of technology and business, they now talk about the individual and the student’s personal benefit.

People no longer go to school to help the community by helping themselves; students get an education to get a better job so that they can make more money.  Students are encouraged to see the investment side of college life. They put money in to get money back-that is how individuals can be convinced to take tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for school.

When it becomes a personal investment it becomes a personal responsibility.  The problem is, when it becomes a business investment, business wants part of the responsibility.  The private interests along with private control end up equaling private benefits.

Private money making public decisions is like dirty old men designing young women’s clothing.  Since public goals in an age of business get the same attention as the articles in “Playboy” magazine, state legislatures no longer feel the need to support higher education with community dollars.

With state colleges and universities stuck with no resources, there are relatively few places to turn. Higher tuition is one solution-but that only further destroys the community.  In most states, especially in Oregon, tuition is as high as it can go.

Cutting corners with bigger classes and cheaper teachers works for a while too. Of course, big classes with overworked teachers are no addition to any public mission.  Universities have only one way to turn, and they kneel to that money source as if it is the second coming.

Buying Control

Now that the private money rolls in like a bakery, the state university is becoming the most painful oxymoron of the 1990s.  Private money is the solution; so, what’s the problem?  Money is money is money, right?  Why should it matter if higher education funding came from a tax statement or a charity check; isn’t the corporate world just giving back to its community?

Not at all. Businesses do not have hearts, and money does not have a conscience.  Business gives to get back. Microsoft and Apple hand out software like it was Halloween candy so that they can make customer loyalty-in the long run, they make money.

In the nineties, students have become customers.  The ultimate goal is money production and not thought enhancement.  The ideals of business translate simply as more for less; higher education has the same policy now-private industry gets more, students and communities, considerably less.

It would be nice to think that all these big donors just want to help. It would be nice to think that all of this giving comes from the kindness of Phil Knight’s heart-but that’s a tough sell.

Does Phil Knight love the U of O?  Probably.  Does that make all this private money beneficial and benign?  Not at all.

It is not business and private sectors’ fault that public universities have come begging for their money; for the most part, they are doing the right thing.  Public universities in general cannot be culpable for a problem that was forced upon them by apathetic communities and unsupportive legislatures, but universities took a broken system and succeeded in breaking it even more.

Higher education has gone about fixing itself in all the wrong ways, and a faltering education system that has decreasing community confidence is the result.  Our local community college in Eugene sponsors a six-week training course for Sony Manufacturing and Symantec Corporation.  If the private funds that roll into U of O continue, a NIKE public relations course might not be too far behind.

The private sphere is becoming institutionalized into the public.  The same business-solves-all ideology that pushed Ross Perot to the national forefront now shoves its foot into the previously unscathed doorways of higher education.

At a recent higher education conference in Montana, businessmen were invited to participate as if they were a part of the community.  They had great solutions for our funding problems: higher tuition and more loans.  Their theory: young people in debt is a good learning experience and a great boost for the economy.

Private money makes public higher education less responsible to the community it supposedly serves, and it’s easier to respond to business wants than community needs.

So, money pours into the sciences and business schools because that is what really benefits business.  Students who do not have applicable majors no longer get the money or professors they need to succeed.  At the University of Oregon, the new buildings are in business, all the sciences and law; that is by no means a coincidence.

In Eugene, the administration now supports a Productivity plan that pays schools by the number of credits they sell; the administration now runs the U of O like it is a business-that is also not a coincidence.  The key to higher education’s success at the University of Oregon in 1997?  Volume.

In the same way that a business oriented government cut arts and public works programs, a business-oriented university ignores quality to build a better economy for bigger money.  NIKE, Phil Knight and the rest of the U of O’s big donors have succeeded in making the university a business investment.

In doing so, they have shifted higher education from a person’s right to a business right.  At one time, people had the right to attend universities to better themselves.  Now, businesses have the right to have an educated work force.  The difference between the two ideals is gargantuan.

Education’s Faustian Bargain

Businesses spend money through donations that used to come to universities through corporate taxes.  By specifically donating to certain places-science programs, research institutions, business schools-businesses have found a way to get more of what they want for less money.

Nike and Phil Knight get one hell of a bargain.  Phil Knight’s contributions have been personal, but as a spokesman for Nike, his deals serve an intentional double purpose.  No matter what checkbook the money comes from, the idea is that Nike is the corporation with the big heart and generous pocketbook.

It is a well strategized marketing ploy; every time Nike gets a labor complaint, they get to point to Eugene with a big smile and say, “We’re not that bad!”

Public figures who scrape around for private money are always being scrutinized for their methods and sources; public institutions should be no different.  But because the university system has become so dependent on the private sphere, it is difficult to critically analyze their practices.

It is much harder for U of O president Dave Frohnmayer to see the error of Nike’s labor practices when Phil Knight builds law schools and pays his salary.  Even though students at Eugene have been protesting and fighting the administration all year about recognizing the problems facing production labor in both the United States and the world, the university has refused any support.

Embarrassment?  Forget It

President Frohnmayer received two pay raises this year: one from the state for eleven percent, which he refused and instead devoted to student scholarships, and a $40,000 pay raise from Phil Knight which he and the State Board accepted.

There is an ideological paradox.  The University says they need the Nike money to stay competitive with other universities.  With that logic, why not make the job even more competitive?  The university gave up public funds and interests for private money and influence.  It is becoming a trend and that kind of logic is equivalent to a shot in the head.

It is impossible to convince a public community to support a public university when their money is not even acceptable -with this kind of precedent, asking for more state money is like squeezing a rock instead of a cow for milk.

The university should be the place where the ideals of its students would be explored if not glorified.  Our curriculum should portray concerns with human rights and equality, but none of this occurs.  Part of this is the President Frohnmayer’s hands off approach to policy, but most has to be connected to the necessity of being donor friendly.

When Doonesbury ran its anti-Nike skit, the school newspaper mysteriously dropped the strip from its pages for a period of time. When the university announced its intention to accept Knight’s presidential endowment, they did it on the Friday of Finals Week right before Spring break-the students were gone, the school newspaper did not even know about it.

Having furtively accepted Mr. Knight’s charitable raise, the university and the president expressed a real concern “about appearances.”  At one time, this kind of wallet stuffing would have been embarrassing, but everybody’s doing it and the bar has already lowered.

Let it be clear: all private money is supposed to do is make more money.  Not one dime of their money is a gift, all of it is an investment.

Private industry is trying a hostile takeover and higher education does not have the money to fight back. The problem grows, but the solution is simple enough: If corporation’s have money to give, let them give it through corporate taxes.

Make business contribute to the whole so that the public mission has the opportunity to serve the majority.  If industry wants to give more even after tax increases, by all means let them, but first give universities and colleges the power to say “no” when they need to.

Give higher education the ground to stand on when labor abusers and polluters come knocking.  Instead of letting money problems become the muzzle of higher education, let financial security add to the voices of campus activism and higher learning.

How does a university serve its community when it ignores its wishes to bend to the ideas of the private sphere?  It cannot, and it does not.

If higher education is in trouble, this is why. It is hard to argue that we are not the University of Nike at Eugene when Phil Knight pays our president, our faculty and builds our facilities while his corporation pays $7 million to be a partner in our Athletic Department.

The public needs to understand that public money serves the public; better higher education with government funds would be strong evidence in support of that case. Right now, Nike is buying public relations while silencing its largest potential critics.

Maybe after the buyout is over we could go public again, this time with stock shares.  Wow, that could be a real revenue producer.