This Course Brought to You By....

At Hunter College, was a professor pressured to teach a course "sponsored" by an industry group, based in part on creating a fake student to fool other students?
March 3, 2008

It's standard practice these days for colleges to depend on corporate philanthropy to see campus buildings or endowed chairs with company names. But are there lines that shouldn't be crossed? At the University of Iowa last year, professors objected to a plan to name the School of Public Health after a company.

What about a course? Can it be "sponsored"? If so, what should that mean?

At Hunter College of the City University of New York, some professors are asking those questions -- and a Faculty Senate committee is considering a formal complaint about violations of academic freedom -- over a course sponsored last year by the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition (known as the IACC), an organization of companies that are concerned about low-cost knockoffs of their products. The companies involved include some of the biggest names in fashion and consumer goods -- Abercrombie & Fitch, Chanel, Coach, Harley-Davidson, Levi Strauss, Reebok and so forth.

According to the complaints filed with the Faculty Senate, Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real. So-called "guerrilla marketing" -- in which consumers are unaware that they are being marketed -- is the subject of some controversy in the marketing and public relations world. But even among advocates for the tactic, there are some who are disturbed about what happened at Hunter.

Some question why a for-credit college class at a public university should be doing, in effect, discount marketing work for an industry group. Some wonder about a college using some students to fool other students. Others are concerned about the circumstances of the course itself. It was created without any curricular review. The professor who taught it says that he was pressured to do so even though he has no expertise in advertising or public relations (he teaches computer graphics) and had ethical qualms about the course.

Further, the professor -- and other professors who have investigated the circumstances of the course -- maintain that the professor was required to teach only one side of the issue, had to accept industry officials watching him teach, and had little clout to fight back since he didn't (and still doesn't) have tenure.

The department chair -- designated by Hunter as the only person to speak officially about the course -- at first said that this was "a Hunter matter" and didn't warrant outside attention. But he then said that everyone involved had free choice to participate or not, and that there were no academic freedom issues raised by the arrangement. He did acknowledge, however, that the department had already adopted at least one reform in the wake of the experience: Any other new "sponsored" courses will have to be reviewed by a curriculum committee before they can be taught.

Heidi Cee -- the Student Who Isn't

Last spring, attentive students at Hunter might have noticed leaflets around campus in which a student indicated that she was desperate for the return of her lost Coach bag. Web surfers might also have found her blog, in which she told of her adventures in love (an ex named Adam, a "random cute guy," and a promising date that turns bad when poor Heidi realizes she has been brought to a foot fetish party). Heidi also establishes herself as something of a fashionista.

Things get pretty upsetting for Heidi when she loses a Coach bag that was a gift from Adam. Her post: omg this sucks. But clearly Heidi is not one to give up easily. After her search for the bag fails, she decides to put up posters (those posters Hunter students may have noticed) advertising a $500 reward for return of the bag. She writes that she doesn't even care if she ends up paying the money to someone who stole the bag. She just loves her Coach bag that much. The plan works and she gets the bag back, but then disaster strikes.

In a blog entry EFFING COUNTERFEIT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Heidi shares the bad news: "Today I was looking at my bag, admiring my efforts and ability to get it back when in the process I realized that something was out of place with the interior. Not only is the lining a slightly different color, but the words on the leather tag inside run together! The lettering isn't as crisp and defined as on my REAL bag. The bag is FAKE!!!! I can’t believe this! After spending about an hour crying I decided to sit down and just vent on this silly blog.... I tried to get in touch with the girl who returned the bag to me but of course she is not going to pick up; would you if I had already given you $500??!!! I made sure to leave the nastiest message too! I also tried calling from Allie’s phone to see if she would pick up a different number but no answer. How could someone do this?? I’m crying in the process of writing this, I just cant stop. UGH, I don’t understand. I really don’t...."

Heidi, of course, isn't any more real than the characters in television advertising. But while a television viewer is aware that he or she is watching advertising, those viewing the blog or her posters at Hunter thought they were learning about the experiences of a real student -- not a class project crafted by an industry association (that was sufficiently proud to boast about it).

Tim Portlock -- the Advertising Prof Who Isn't

So how did this course come to be? James Roman, chair of the film and media department, said he became aware of the interest of the IACC in sponsoring a course, so he approached Tim Portlock about teaching it. Portlock's specialty is computer art and both he and Roman agree that Portlock had no experience teaching or doing research about marketing and public relations. Roman said that for that reason, he also assigned a graduate student to help, and that Portlock agreed to teach. Roman said he never pressured Portlock to teach the course, and that Portlock had full control over the curriculum (this would be the same curriculum that the IACC boasted about arranging.)

Portlock remembers it differently. He said that he told his chair that he was "totally unqualified" to teach the course, but he was eventually told "you're going to teach this course." Portlock also said that conference calls were set up with IACC officials to discuss plans and that he didn't feel he could challenge those plans. "They gave us the materials to refer to. They told us the subject matter to cover." IACC officials also "came to visit" the course "to see how we were progressing."

Copyright is "a complex issue," Portlock said, but he said that he couldn't really explain that to the students. "On the one hand, they said I could teach things from different perspectives, but when I suggested any kind of critical, sort of an opposite perspective, I was basically told in a very sarcastic way that that was not going to happen," Portlock said. "It was suggested to me [in conference calls with the IACC] not to cover certain topics." (IACC officials did not respond to phone calls, but material about the course appears on the association's Web site about its efforts to change the attitudes of college students.)

Portlock said that, looking back this, he has "real ethical problems" with the course. "I don't know if the problems that they have with copyright are concerns I necessarily share. It's all very strange to me to be in a situation where I had to advocate those views," he said. "They gave us $10,000 and they got some good, cheap publicity."

In many ways, Portlock and others at Hunter who asked not to be identified said, his selection to teach the course is the smoking gun. If Hunter wanted to teach a real guerrilla marketing class, why would it pick a professor who by his own admission and the chair's had no relevant knowledge -- and who lacked tenure?

Portlock's answer: "There's no explanation. I can only guess it's because I'm the most vulnerable person on the faculty and the most expendable."

Ohio State -- the Similar Class That Isn't

In defending the course, Roman -- the department chair speaking for the college -- said that "this is not unique to Hunter or my department." He noted that corporations have many ways of helping colleges, and that the IACC helps other colleges -- such as Ohio State University -- with courses that are just like the one at Hunter.

While other colleges do work with IACC, at least some of them (Ohio State being one) actually don't use credit courses in the same way. Dan Steinberg, an instructor in communications at Ohio State, has worked with IACC campaigns, but in a more limited in-class way and as a clear out-of-class activity.

Steinberg teaches a strategic planning course in which students in marketing and public relations plan a campaign on behalf of some organization. He works the instruction around planning the campaign and includes a range of marketing tactics in the course. Most of the campaigns are designed for nonprofit groups, but he did do one for IACC. One big difference, however, is that in class, students design the plan, but don't do the actual marketing. He added that the course was in no way "sponsored."

There is a student public relations club that -- with support from IACC, but without academic credit -- executed portions of the plan, Steinberg said.

Steinberg said he was pleased to work with students in the club to help them learn marketing, but wouldn't have been comfortable executing the ideas in a credit course. Ohio State's system gives "a clearer separation between any kind of sponsorship and a course."

He added: "Students shouldn't have class requirements if they're not purely for academic reasons."

A Year Later

The course at question at Hunter was taught a year ago, but is only now getting sustained attention. The criticism and attention are largely the result of a tenured faculty member (and former chair), Stuart Ewen, who happened to hear about the course after the fact and started investigating. Ewen happens to be an expert on marketing and messages -- he's the author of, among other works, PR! A Social History of Spin.

As he documented what took place, he said he became concerned on multiple levels -- about the kind of marketing being taught and about the way the college was treating a non-tenured professor and the concept of who should control a course. "I think there are ethical issues at stake here," said Ewen in an interview. "One of the ground rules of universities is that the curriculum derives from the faculty," he said. "The notion of an outside political or economic force having an impact is in violation of AAUP standards," he said.

Ewen said he has not doubt that Portlock was "forced to teach the course," even with concerns about its ethics and his knowledge base. Ewen is among two faculty members who have now filed complaints about the course with the college's Academic Freedom Committee. (Roman, the department chair, first questioned Ewen's credibility, noting that he has had disagreements with college administrators. But asked if Ewen's version of events was accurate, Roman said that Ewen was correct in his "primary information.")

William Sakas, a professor of computer science who leads the Academic Freedom Committee, said he couldn't comment on specifics of the complaint, as it has only recently been received. But Sakas said that the committee was "taking the complaint very seriously."

In addition to filing complaints, Ewen has been speaking about the issue in public relations circles, which has led some who blog about the industry to weigh in -- critically -- about the program at Hunter. Bob LeDrew, whose blog FlackLife has written about concerns over the situation, said via e-mail that he hoped people would realize that "not all PR flacks are in favor of actions like the ones undertaken in the Coach / Hunter College case."


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