Reclaiming Our Birthright

Contractual relationships with corporations have tarnished higher education's public image. College presidents and trustees must work to restore it, writes Constantine W. Curris.


January 15, 2008

As written in Genesis, Esau, exhausted from his labors and faint from hunger, sells his birthright for a pottage of red lentils. We are reminded of Esau’s bargain through the seemingly unending revelations of distasteful contracts between higher education and the corporate world. These contractual relationships raise the question: Has the modern university, in its quest for resources, likewise sold its birthright?

It is a question not easily answered, for the concept of a higher education birthright is nebulous. Yet it is clear that society, through elected representatives, personal philanthropy, and religious authorities, has accorded to the Academy great autonomy, and deferred to the judgment of faculty and administrators on weighty issues expressed in policies, programs and the tenets of academic freedom. The public’s support of the Academy is rooted in its belief that colleges and universities are altruistically motivated and have at heart the best interests of students and society.

It is that premise that has been shaken by revelations that several student financial aid offices have sacrificed the best interests of students for operating dollars and personal aggrandizement, and that some alumni affairs offices have sold student and graduate addresses to credit card companies and loan consolidators. To many it appears that university officials have abused the public’s trust.

Three recent news stories, months removed from the New York attorney general’s revealing investigations, illustrate higher education problems. The president of Iowa State University acted forthrightly in calling for an end to the practice of selling undergraduate names and addresses to Bank of America’s credit card marketing division. For this and other contractual considerations, including higher credit card interest rates for students than for alumni, Bank of America annually gives the Alumni Association $500,000 and a guaranteed $40,000 to the University. Not surprisingly, none of the $40,000 goes for student financial aid; the full amount is directed to intercollegiate athletics.

In contrast to Iowa State’s call for corrective action, University of Miami officials seek to justify the university's transmission of private student information (including Social Security and driver’s license data) to the Sallie Mae Corporation, which in turn personalized student loan applications and mailed them to incoming students. Miami steadfastly has refused to reveal the financial compensation it receives from Sallie Mae for facilitating this marketing ploy, except to acknowledge that the firm controls approximately $70 million or 95 percent of the University’s federal loan business.

Now comes the NCAA with a proposal to permit companies contracting with collegiate athletic programs to use images of individual student athletes for commercial usage. Of course, none of the revenues or royalties from these contracts will reach student athletes, but will undoubtedly benefit their coaches, athletic officials, and conference coffers. NCAA officials shamelessly deny that the proposal constitutes an exploitation of student-athletes -- which, of course, is precisely what it is.

Rather than bringing this controversial proposal to a January vote, it has now been referred to a committee of presidents for additional study. It may or may not surface again, but the fact it had the support of the NCAA Academic and Eligibility Committee in order to provide “greater flexibility in developing relationships with commercial entities” bespeaks the values dominating the current state of intercollegiate athletics. Esau may have favored a pottage of red lentils, but today’s preference is green.

We have not arrived at this ethical crossroads through greed or mal-intent. Economic pressures born of diminishing revenue streams, the counsel of Boards and advisory bodies to be more entrepreneurial, and the desire to enhance the stature of institutions we serve have facilitated higher education’s commercial embrace. We are now paying the price for imprudent decisions, ineffective oversight, and diminished commitment to serving students and society.

Rebuilding the public’s confidence and trust in our institutions must occur in the same settings where that confidence and trust were eroded: on individual campuses and through higher education’s governing structures. The historic values of the Academy must be reaffirmed both by governing boards and by campus presidents and chancellors. Comprehensive, clearly enunciated conflict of interest policies are part of the answer, but in a larger sense those who work for and those who work with our colleges and universities need to inculcate ethical guidelines and community values and see them reflected in decision-making throughout the University. Processes by which proposed contracts and agreements, particularly with external vendors, can be reviewed prior to effectuation, and an enhanced internal auditing function will likewise be needed. Of course, institutional funding must be found for those important functions which have become financially dependent on questionable external arrangements.

Most importantly, each college and university will need to clarify its priorities and reaffirm its core values. I would expect that most institutions will incorporate three principles in its credo. First, transactions and relationships with external entities must be public and transparent. It is not enough for the public to have access to information, external relationships should be explicated in a way that salient information is readily recognized and understood—and presented in a manner that permits knowledgeable discussion and accountable decision-making.

Secondly, affirmation is needed to insure that the best interests of students will be a primary consideration in all external arrangements. (One could persuasively argue that this principle should be extended to faculty and staff as well, though it is clear there is a special relationship born of tradition and public expectations between the college or university and its students.) Formal agreements and informal arrangements which adversely impact students presumptively should be eschewed. It is difficult to justify any external agreement which consciously increases student costs, limits student choices, disseminates private records, or exploits individual students for individual or corporate gain.

Lastly, there must be a recognition that the integrity of the decision-making process and an institution’s reputation are intertwined. Irrespective of whether the college or university is public or independent, its foundation is built on public trust. The institution should never engage in any activity or execute any external agreement which erodes the public’s conviction that the Academy has society’s best interests at heart and so conducts its affairs.

Reclaiming the public’s trust (truly the Academy’s historic birthright) should be an overarching goal for all higher education.

Share Article

Constantine W. Curris is president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.



Back to Top