UW’s Air Wars

The provost’s spot on Nike’s board may not survive the company’s recent sweatshop scandal.

It's clearer than ever that University of Washington Provost Phyllis Wise stepped into a minefield when she accepted a seat on Nike's board of directors. This week, the UW faculty union formally called on Wise to give up the position, which pays up to $200,000 a year. Meanwhile, UW President Mark Emmert has written to Nike warning that the company's relationship with the school—which includes a $35 million contract that makes Nike the exclusive supplier of Husky sportswear—is at risk. Much of the controversy surrounds the treatment of workers at two Nike factories in Honduras run by subcontractors. According to Emmert's letter, the factories closed after they were unionized, and workers were denied severance pay. In a statement by the UW branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), faculty say that Wise's presence on the Nike board creates a conflict of interest, given the university's efforts to ensure that its sweatshirts and other apparel are produced in accordance with fair labor practices. The faculty group also claims that Wise's Nike connection undermines academic freedom by discouraging faculty from speaking out about Nike's labor practices. "It may not be Provost Wise's intention to silence criticism from labor experts," the statement says. "But when faculty report to a provost who is on Nike's payroll, institutional incentives favor tolerance for sweatshop abuses." In his letter to Nike, which he wrote right before Christmas, Emmert is seemingly trying to show that no such tolerance exists. Much of the letter is fairly tame, asking for the company's "perspective" on the Honduran situation and "information on the remediation" due workers there. It stops short of putting the company on "notice" for labor violations, as recommended by his faculty and student Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing. However, Emmert ends by saying that "a continued relationship between the University of Washington and Nike is very much contingent on your appropriate resolution of this matter." Because of this implied threat, Margaret Levi, a political science professor who co-chairs the advisory committee, calls it "a very strong letter." The question is whether the university will follow through on this threat—despite Wise's feet in both camps. Nike spokesperson Kate Meyers says the company is in "close consultation" with the university. In an e-mail sent to Seattle Weekly through a university spokesperson, Wise avoids responding directly to the AAUP's complaints, but says that university leaders can serve on corporate boards in "ethically responsible ways."

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