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University of Michigan's Dubious Deal with Dow Chemical (News Analysis)

By Carol Polsgrove
Friday April 20, 2012 - 04:47:00 PM

The terms of Dow Chemical's $10 million gift to the University of Michigan ought to raise eyebrows in universities across the country.

Under the gift agreement made public by the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Dow Chemical would have its own paid representative on the committee that chooses Sustainability Fellows funded by the gift.

As far as many environmentalists are concerned, Dow and Sustainability are a contradiction in terms. The idea that the university would give Dow any control at all over an academic sustainability program suggests a sell-out of monumental proportions. 

In the terms of the agreement (which you can read for yourself on the Ecology Center website), "Donor will second an employee to the University (Secondee) who will be compensated by the Donor. The Secondee will be the point person for the Program's interaction with the Donor and be involved with university and external stakeholders with regard to Program activities." 

Among the activities Dow's paid representative will be involved in are selection of the Fellows. According to the gift agreement, pried out of the university through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Ecology Center, "all applications will go through an independent review by a diverse selection committee comprised of University faculty and/or staff....and the Donor's Secondee." 

For a university with the exalted research reputation of the University of Michigan to give a corporation this kind of say in an academic program is astonishing. 

And that's not all. For one thing, although Dow's donation will not fully fund the program, the university has agreed to obtain written consent from Dow if it "wishes to solicit or negotiate with any other parties regarding this Program." 

For another, Postdoctoral Sustainability Fellows (one of three categories of Fellows) will have two-year appointments as assistant professors or assistant research scientists in academic departments. Departments would thus be accepting faculty members chosen, not by their own faculty, but by a committee that includes a representative of Dow. 

The entire fellowship program, intended to be interdisciplinary, floats free of the control of any particular department, leaving it more vulnerable to control by Dow, which has the power to continue or discontinue supporting it after the six-year term of the gift. 

I first heard of Michigan's deal with Dow from an email that John Vandermeer, Asa Gray Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, sent out to colleagues. 

After running through points that disturbed him, Vandermeer said, "The gift, in my view, has the potential to dramatically affect some of the University’s ability to deal creatively and effectively with sustainability issues, and as such should have been, and still should be, widely debated and analyzed by the University community. What was the intent of keeping it secret?" 

He asked his colleagues to speak up, and indeed, students and faculty members across the country should join them. This is a deal the university's Board of Regents ought never have approved, and if the spirit of Free Inquiry still hovers over American universities, the University of Michigan has not heard the end of it. 

Carol Polsgrove is a Professor Emerita at the University of Indiana. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.