Higher education in Oregon, as elsewhere, is in a financial bind. Tax revenues no longer supply necessary funding for state colleges and universities. That feeds a cancer eating away at academic independence as major donors increasingly throw around their weight where it should not be: deciding school policies.
A current example is the subterfuge at the University of Oregon with the announcement that highly successful director of athletics, Bill Moos, is leaving. Official word was that, at 55, Moos had resigned to return to his cattle ranch in Washington. It raised eyebrows when it was revealed Moos will receive a $2 million severance payment.
Severance? For termination, yes. For resigning, no.
I know as a sports information director at two universities that lying is not foreign to college sport. Like my colleagues nationwide, I would inflate heights and weights of some players in media guides. That was trivial, and sharp sportswriters saw through it. Not trivial are misleading statements Oregonians get about the departure of Moos from the University.
When one resigns, it rarely comes with the gift of severance payment. Severance is there because directors, like coaches, are vulnerable to being fired for unimpressive records, or on the whims of a president or alumnus of great wealth. Unlike faculty members, many of whom have protection of tenure, directors and coaches are subject to being fired at a moment's notice. Severance softens the blow.
So why the departure payment for Moos when he and the university say he resigned? A Eugene sports editor suggested the firing was demanded by a generous donor and alumnus, Phil Knight of Nike. Moos is one of the rare Oregon athletic figures over the years with the courage to challenge dictates of Knight.
Since Moos' resignation was requested, that constitutes firing him. The news media and public have been denied the truth. That caused the sports editor to, Ron Bellamy of the Register-Guard, to admit he has been too willing to accept announcements from the University without digging further. He might have realized that long ago when it comes to issues involving major donors.
Knight was incensed a few years back over something UO students properly requested. They had the school become part of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors employee relations of corporations, including Nike. He threatened to renege on his promise of millions for expansion of Oregon's football stadium because of it. Within weeks, the State System of Higher Education suddenly ruled it was illegal for its schools to be in the WRC.
With feigned regret, UO President David Frohnmayer announced the decision to ally with the WRC had to be reversed. A few weeks later, with a sigh of relief, he watched as Knight came waddling back to alma mater with his Nike gold nuggets.
The issue transcends sports. It reveals the growing threat to independence of higher education everywhere from some corporate donors who assert their will on schools because they think they bought the right with big gifts. It parallels what happens to our legislators on the auction block for campaign money from big donors.
I learned of the same intimidation at the UO School of Law. A former law dean told me how a gift from a Eugene lumber mogul, Aaron Jones, resulted in the Environmental Law Clinic being dropped by the University. Dean Chapin Clark said Jones tore up a check for $50,000 to the Law School in front of University and Law administrators. "Don't worry," he said. "I will make out an even larger check, if you drop the Environmental Center."
They did, and he did.
One can understand why state schools turn to corporate donors for money as state aid diminishes. We're thankful for that generosity -- but not when donors see it as license to exert their will on academia, as in hiring and firing coaches and directors, or dropping or adding programs.
Some feel universities are now should be referred to as Corporate University. If so, that would solve all financial problems. But it would mean destruction of academic integrity, which already has begun.
George Beres is former sports information director at the University of Oregon, a position he previously held at his alma mater, Northwestern University.
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