Passing the Smell Test
Oxford denies that its deal with L'Oréal endangers academic freedom, but an "unfortunately phrased" job description leaves some skeptical.
A University of Oxford job advertisement apparently requiring its L'Oréal Professor of Marketing to carry out work for the global cosmetics giant was "unfortunately phrased," the university has said, amid concerns over academic freedom.
Last month, applications closed for the L'Oréal professorship, which was established at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2001 with a £1.8 million pound ($2.9 million) endowment from the company. The job description published by the university specifies the post's research and teaching duties, before stating: "In addition, the professor will be expected to engage periodically with L’Oréal, the sponsor of the chair, in the interests of developing and promoting mutually beneficial activities."
Eric Barendt, emeritus professor of media law at University College London and co-chair of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, called this "a constraint on academic freedom." Barendt, author of Academic Freedom and the Law: A Comparative Study (2010), highlighted concerns about corporate-funded chairs: "The professor is not free to criticize L'Oréal products, their consumption, or advertising practices. It is a profound pity that the Saïd Business School has entered into this arrangement and it reflects very badly on the university."
Times Higher Education asked Oxford whether the specification to work with L'Oréal had been part of the job description in the past, and whether such specifications are standard for corporate-funded posts at the university. An Oxford spokeswoman said: "The line [of the job description] is new and this sort of line is not standard."
She added: "Engagement with L'Oréal is not a requirement of the job, so this line is unfortunately phrased. It would be surprising if a marketing professor did not want to engage with one of the world's leading consumer brands and a major marketing-led organization; however, they are not required to do so and it would certainly not be part of any contract."
The spokeswoman said she understood that the line "was actually intended … as an inducement to attract applicants who would relish the opportunity to work with the company." However, the successful applicant "would be under no obligation to do so." She added: "L'Oréal has no role in selection for the post or in choosing research directions."
A L'Oréal spokesman said it sponsored the chair, based in the social sciences division, to "promote the role of marketing in business."
"The clause reflects the possibility that the professor may wish to engage with [the company's] own marketing teams from time to time. L'Oréal does not seek any involvement or influence with the views or teaching of the professor," he added.
Earlier this year, Oxford defended another corporate-sponsored post, its News International-funded Rupert Murdoch Professorship of Language and Communication, while the scandal over phone-hacking at the News of the World was at its height. Other corporate-funded posts at the Saïd Business School include the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company Professorship in Management Studies – named after the shipping business.
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