Sinister Influences on Campus

April 15th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Normally, someone who writes a blog is thrilled to see it mentioned in a national publication. But I had mixed feelings when a reference to the Dirt Diggers Digest appeared recently in the Washington Post. That’s because it came in an op-ed written by two people at a rightwing group engaged in a campaign that smells a lot like red-baiting.

Here’s the background: In March the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a rightwing think tank in Michigan, filed a state freedom of information request to see private e-mails of faculty and staff members at the labor studies programs of Michigan’s public universities. The demand covered all messages containing references to the recent controversies over public employee collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin (the Republican Party in that state had just made a similar demand regarding the e-mails of a University of Wisconsin history professor).

The FOIAs have generated an intense debate over academic freedom and activism by those working at state educational institutions. After the Washington Post published an editorial highly critical of the information requests, Mackinac’s president Joseph G. Lehman and senior editor Thomas S. Shull responded in the op-ed.

As part of their attempt to justify the e-mail fishing expedition, Lehman and Shull cite examples of what they depict as “inappropriately political” activities at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center.  These include the preparation of materials for labor activists working on living wage and privatization issues and helping “workers ‘research’ their employers through numerous links to such online resources as the ‘Dirt Diggers Digest.’”

It’s amazing how quickly Lehman and Shull pivot from a complaint about supposedly partisan activities to an attack on labor-oriented corporate research. Since when is it scandalous for labor educators to have close ties to unions and produce materials for their use? And is there something sinister about helping workers gain a better understanding of the companies that employ them?

The Mackinac Center apparently thinks so, and its FOIA request seems to be an attempt to make labor educators at public universities think twice about working closely with the labor movement. It is a ploy that goes hand in glove with the attack on public employee union rights in Michigan and numerous other states.

Unwilling to acknowledge an anti-union motivation, the Mackinac Center would have us believe that its concern is that the labor studies programs are being “sidetracked from [their] educational mission.” The implication is that educators who are too connected to outside groups lose their academic integrity.

Since the Mackinac Center folks are so worried about threats to academic independence, I recommend that they investigate a troubling situation at another taxpayer-supported educational program in their state: the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Ross fosters close ties to corporate groups through its “executive education” program, which brags: “At Ross we go beyond connecting theory to practice. We connect theory to your practice so you can connect ideas to your organization’s strategy.” Ross faculty members assist corporations not only in the classroom but also in the boardroom. The school’s website describes its faculty as “leaders in helping executives and managers leverage cutting-edge knowledge to support real organizations” and it tells companies:  “You can take advantage of this resource by booking a Ross faculty expert to speak at your next board meeting, strategic planning session, or in-house workshop. Our Michigan Speakers Bureau delivers expertise in emerging markets, outsourcing, innovation, strategy, and more.”

Corporate infiltration can be seen throughout Ross’s programs. These include the Mitsui Life Financial Research Center, which was named after the big Japanese insurance company that provided “a generous endowment.” The Center sponsored a seminar last year on “Negotiating with Labor under Financial Distress.”

The Ross School also houses the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, named for real estate magnate Samuel Zell and his late partner Robert H. Lurie. After taking over the Tribune Company in 2007, Zell decimated the unionized staffs at its newspaper properties. Is that the kind of entrepreneurship the Institute is teaching?

Business influence also extends to individual professors, some of whom hold chairs endowed by specific corporations. The Ross faculty includes a Ford Motor Company Clinical Professor of Business Administration, a Dow Professor of Sustainable Science, a Bank One Corporation Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, and an Ernst & Young Professor of Accounting. Even those without endowed chairs seem to have succumbed to business-think. Associate Professor Aneel Karnani published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal last year entitled “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility.”

And in perhaps its most shameless practice, the Ross School welcomes company “recruiters” to campus so they can enlist graduating students into the corporate movement. The Ross website, dropping all pretense of independence, tells these headhunters: “We greatly appreciate your ongoing commitment to Ross and look forward to working with you toward our mutual success.”

How can an educational institution that vows to achieve mutual success with an outside movement stay true to academic principles?

I trust that as soon as they are made aware of this situation, Mackinac Center staffers will demand to see the e-mails of all the corporate educators at the Ross School. Perhaps some of the research experts at Wayne State can help them make sense of the business connections.

What’s more likely is that they won’t get the joke.

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