Late last year, the University of Washington’s provost, Phyllis Wise, accepted a position on the corporate board of Nike, which has stirred up contention. Wise is the second highest administrator, behind UW President Mark Emmert.
Some students and faculty argue that serving on the board is a conflict of interest because the UW has a sponsorship contract with Nike, making it the school’s exclusive provider of sports footwear, apparel, and some equipment.
Others are concerned with the ethical implications of sitting on Nike’s board. According to The Seattle Times, the UW Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing, which is composed of staff, faculty, and students, stated that a Nike sub-contractor closed two of its factories in Honduras without paying its 1,800 workers adequate severance.
We argue, however, that Wise is being unfairly targeted. A lot of deans, faculty, and medical schools do consulting work for corporations. There should be a certain amount of freedom given to these people to acquire this kind of experience. It would help the UW become engaged in the business and civic community, across a broad range of political and economic sectors.
Additionally, there is only an appearance of a conflict because people are not aware of the facts. The UW’s contract with Nike does not fall under Wise’s jurisdiction but Emmert’s. If a conflict of interest does genuinely arise under Wise, she has recused herself from the formal chain of command from decisions, meetings, or conversations involving Nike. Likewise, Nike is well aware of this issue and will also be cautious in regard to it.
Wise is not the first academic to join Nike. Jill Ker Conway, former president of Smith College, has served on the board since 1987.
As for the ethical issue — Emmert has sent a letter to Nike condemning its labor practices. Unethical practices is also what Wise hopes to fight against as she plans to be on the corporate responsibility committee of the board.
Think of it this way: Isn’t it good for Nike to gain a better perspective on corporation ethics? Wouldn’t it be good to have someone like Wise, an Asian American woman, to bring a perspective involving social justice, diversity, corporate responsibility, and sustainability? It’s a widely known fact that there is not only a low number of Asian Americans on corporate boards, but a low number of Asian American females as well.
Wise being on the Nike board signifies an opening for more people of color to participate and voice their unique perspectives.
Also, if we put unfair restrictions on the faculty and administrators, we may cause these people to leave the university for greener pastures.
Imagine how hard it is to get good faculty at the UW with its current budget cuts. This is not the time to spend nitpicking and condemning Wise.
It has been reported that Wise makes $535,000 annually in salary and deferred compensation, which is incorrect. The actual figure is $410,000, which is less than what some deans make. Publicly, Wise has been reluctant to directly address calls for her to donate her Nike earnings toward UW scholarships, stating that her philanthropy decisions are personal and aren’t up for public discussion.
She is right. The fact is that some people are being overly critical of Wise without listening to her intentions and are working under the false assumption that she took the Nike position to further herself.
However, perhaps to put some of the discussion to rest, Wise did admit to Northwest Asian Weekly that she will receive about $50,000 annually plus stock options from being on Nike’s board. The $50,000 will go to the UW’s scholarship endowments, which the UW partially matches. This was a decision that was in place long before the controversy spilled out.
So far, everything Wise has made from being on boards — $190,000 ($250,000 with UW’s matching) — has gone to scholarship endowments. ♦