Clemson University's two new BMW endowed chairs are among the most well endowed chairs there are. The auto giant -- which while based in Germany has a major plant in South Carolina -- contributed $5 million for each one. The state matched those dollars, creating endowments for each chair to support a professor's salary, lab, graduate students and more.
The chairs are part of BMW's support for the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research,  which includes research park facilities for the university and companies and a new graduate program in automotive engineering, which enrolled its first Ph.D. students this month. An article in the International Herald Tribune  Thursday used the Clemson center as an example of the increasingly close connections universities are making with businesses.
Clemson officials objected to much of the article, saying that it overstated BMW's influence and ignored Clemson's land grant role of promoting economic development. But the university did not dispute a brief mention in the piece to a practice that was news to the university's Faculty Senate and is unusual in academe: letting donors of endowed chairs interview all finalists for the position.
The university portrayed the practice as perfectly normal, but many others see it as dangerous to institutional independence and academic freedom.
Chris Przirembel, Clemson's vice president for research and economic development, said that the new automotive center, on 250 acres in Greenville, is based on a new model of university-business cooperation. "The fundamental concept that we are trying to develop is to have a research campus that is anchored by an academic program and research facility and then have land surrounding that academic anchor that will attract private sector R&D and testing facilities." He said automotive research was important because South Carolina has attracted a number of such businesses, making the industry vital to the state.
As for the endowed chairs, Przirembel said that there was nothing inappropriate about requiring finalists to be interviewed by BMW because the final decisions were made by a university search committee. "The company does not have the opportunity to say Yes or No" on candidates, he added, just to conduct an interview and share its views with the search committee.
While the BMW chairs may not be identical to more traditional chairs, which Przirembel termed "philanthropic" chairs, Clemson has let other donors of chairs have the right to interview finalists, he said. Przirembel repeatedly expressed surprise that anyone would find it unusual that BMW got the right to hold interviews with all finalists for the chairs it endowed. He said that the chair of the search committee would verify that there was no inappropriate influence by BMW, but that chair could not be reached.
Thomas R. Kurfess, the first person hired as a BMW professor, came from the Georgia Institute of Technology and said he wasn't bothered by the interview with the company. "This is a different model," he said. Kurfess noted that many federal agencies want to back university research that is linked to economic development and support for industry. "It's nice to be able to show that it's not just the name behind the chair," he said, but that you have "real ties to industry."
M. Elizabeth Kunkel, the chair of Clemson's Faculty Senate, said she was surprised that any corporate donor would have the right to interview candidates for an endowed chair. Kunkel, a professor of food science, said that faculty members were generally on board with the new automotive research program, and that industry-sponsored research is hardly unusual or controversial at the university.
Kunkel said that many parts of a faculty search process are wide open -- anyone could go to a lecture by a job candidate, for example, she said. And it wouldn't bother her if BMW showed up for such a lecture. But she said she was not aware that all finalists had to be interviewed by BMW for the endowed chairs. If true, she said, "it would cause me some concern."
Rae Goldsmith, vice president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said that she had heard of colleges allowing donors to interview endowed chair candidates "as a courtesy." Goldsmith said that she did not have data on how widespread the practice is, but said it was not the norm. Typically, donors of endowed chairs do select the subject matter of the chair (mechanical engineering, French literature or whatever) but not the person who will hold the chair.
"The donor can't have any say over the final decision," Goldsmith said. Even if the university retains that control, she added, requiring an interview with a donor "raises perception issues" such that colleges "should be very careful."
Added Goldsmith: "There can be real risks in perception among the candidates and the members of the search committee. Is there implied control of the choice by the donor because of the capacity to make future gifts?"
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, called the Clemson arrangement with BMW "very worrisome and inappropriate" in that it "adds another dimension to the corporatization of the academy: letting corporate donors influence what should be a purely academic decision." Such a policy, he said, "is not a good idea unless you are indifferent to academic integrity."
Told that Clemson administrators described the arrangement as normal, Bowen said, "This approach may work in Bavaria, but it should not be condoned here. Donors may designate the academic discipline they wish to fund, but the decision on who to hire should be left to a search committee composed of faculty members."